Breathing in what he surely recognizes to be his final living moments, Frank (Joel Murray) is ushered to the setting of God Bless America‘s final scene by the grizzled sounds of Ray Davies’ haunting “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” before slowly unveiling his last calculated act of vigilante justice. The film is ripe with cartoonish scenes of violence and murder, but writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait views it more as “a violent film about kindness,” a point which is emphasized by the key monologue delivered by Frank in the production’s closing moments. Decrying and condemning a crumbling nation, he rips into the general masses who’ve given rise to America’s current state, calling the country a “cruel and vicious place” where the “meanest and the loudest” are rewarded while “the worst qualities in people are looked up to and celebrated.” In Frank’s eyes (or rather, in Goldthwait’s) the country has become “a nation of slogan-saying bile-spewing hate mongers.” He concludes: “We’ve lost our kindness.”
Frank’s last stand unsubtly echoes the iconic words of Network‘s Howard Beale, who demanded that we begin to combat the wretchedness broadcasted to us as normalcy by joining together in yelling “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” There’s something powerfully emotional about a wave of citizens taking to their windows, doorsteps, and fire escapes to cry out against the vile projections of reality that have corrupted their daily lives, coming together to take the first step toward change by simply saying enough is enough. God Bless America, though, has no such coming together moment as both Frank’s mission and message appear lost in translation to a hopeless audience.
The plot is one that should appeal to fans of either Idiocracy or Falling Down, as God Bless America is a rather bold combination of the two: The story of a broken man pushed to the brink of sanity by the increasingly apathetic (and idiotic) culture that surrounds around him, who ultimately decides that if he’s going down, he’s going to make a stand for decency in the process (by killing a spoiled and utterly tasteless reality television “star”). In the act of doing so he unintentionally befriends a young girl named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) who tracks him down post-murder and implores him to continue his quest for change (by way of brutality), the high-schooler convincing him to allow her to become the Bonnie to his Clyde as they take to the road. Despite Roxy’s eagerness to wipe the slate of everyone ranging from NASCAR fans to Diablo Cody, Frank demands that they focus simply on “people who deserve to die.”
At first it’s a fun ride, living vicariously through the pair as they put an end to the crass teenager and her fame-seeking parents, an inconsiderate group of movie-goers, a fear mongering talking head, and a clan of “God Hates Fags” protesters. But the killing spree isn’t entirely satisfying – following a parking shooting one headline reads “man fatally wounded for taking up two parking spots” – and the payoff fails to come in simply holding a mirror up and saying “Wouldn’t you want to kill them, too, if you could?!” Also, it’s not as if it’s entirely unfashionable right now to bask in a pool of such critical sentiment — simply offering up the satirical commentary doesn’t lend the film its worth. Instead, where God Bless America finds its real value is within a pair of seemingly unrelated plot points.
Early in the film Frank is fired from his job after crossing the guidelines of a corporate harassment policy by using an office directory to send flowers to the home of a fellow employee who he felt had appeared to be in need of an emotional pick-me-up. The woman, who also seemed to welcome Frank’s friendship, went behind his back and reported his act of courtesy as that of malice. Later, Frank firmly speaks his mind with Roxy, stating that he wouldn’t become involved in an “inappropriately mature conversation” with the young lead, nor would he respond to her claim that he wanted to be with her in a romantic way. (“So, you can kill a teenager, just not fuck one?”) Frank instead shoots back about how he’s neither American Apparel or Woody Allen, and his moral compass would lead him beyond the objectification of children simply because cultural norms backing his position continue to dissolve. “Nobody cares that they damage other people” he sermonizes, concluding that he wouldn’t be “responsible for the self-esteem of a teenager” by refusing to tell Roxy whether he feels that she’s “pretty” or not. Though immediately dissimilar, these two moments offer an interconnectedness that would play out later in the film.
The bulk of God Bless America‘s damning tone revolves around a television watching audience’s blood-lust as exhibited through an American Idol-like showcase that, as Frank says, is “a karaoke contest that makes stars out of people with no talent.” The emphasis of the show is on a mentally dim William Hung-type of character whose misguided confidence is mercilessly mocked by judges and onlookers alike. In the end though, the seemingly helpless contestant Steven (Aris Alvarado) is revealed not as an innocent mark, but as the same type of attention-whore that the pair was trying to eradicate. Frank, having blasted his way on-stage at the show’s finale by this point — moments removed from us hearing “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” — looks to Roxy who had unexpectedly joined him from the crowd and passes her his automatic weapon. “You are a pretty girl,” he tells her.
The point Frank made of once shutting a hotel bathroom door so as not to see Roxy in a moment of disrobe, or refusing to speak to her as a sexual being rather than a child was for his own sake, not hers, but by making this statement he stepped outside of himself by addressing what it was that she needed. If only for a moment he recognized that he wasn’t speaking to a broken child whose self-esteem relied solely on the validation of others: He was speaking to a young girl who was dealing with something that all young girls deal with. And as gross as the secretary’s action of ratting Frank out to his boss without addressing her concerns to him first was, Frank didn’t seem to consider if he was being imposing by sending her flowers. He was thinking about what he felt was right, and moral, and decent, and didn’t take into account that within the predatory business environment that he was involved in, he might actually be out of line by making such a seemingly innocent gesture.
God Bless America doesn’t have the same crowd-rallying cry for change as that of a Network, but it elevates a tone of understanding, reminding us that not only are there others out there who are seeking a kind and thoughtful existence amidst a cruel and uncivilized culture, but that our actions shouldn’t land outside the scope of our own inner critics. Recognizing that there is a problem and being part of the solution are sometimes farther apart than they might first appear. God Bless America does a good job of revealing this to be so, but in the end, despite his pleasant gesture, it still seemed uncertain as to whether or not Frank actually understood that himself.