Toward the end of Bobcat Goldthwait’s blacker-than-black comedy God Bless America, the potbellied, everyman hero, Frank (Joel Murray), meets up in a hotel room with a black market gun dealer toting two suitcases full of weapons. The dealer drops a series of racist cracks as he shows off his wares and finally, unveiling an AK-47, asks Frank, “Is that a honey or what?” A honey—suddenly the scene, in fact the entire movie, snapped into focus for me as I remembered a nearly identical rendezvous in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. “Ain’t that a little honey?” asks the fast-talking Easy Andy as he shows Travis Bickle a .380 Walther. Both Travis and Frank are men driven past the breaking point by their disgust with modern-day America, its selfishness and cruelty and exploitation of the weak. The main difference between the two movies is that back in 1976 Travis was rightly recognized as a maniac, whereas 35 years later Frank seems as lovably put-upon as Homer Simpson.
As a night-shift cabbie in New York City, Travis glimpses humanity at its worst through the windshield of his taxi; all Frank needs to do is turn on his TV. Miserably channel surfing in his apartment one night, he sees a glib right-wing commentator (transparently modeled on Sean Hannity) viciously denouncing a grief-stricken mother who’s become an antiwar activist (transparently modeled on Cindy Sheehan), a news report about kids who set a homeless man on fire, a show called Dumb Nutz!! that compiles home video of foolish stunts gone wrong, another conservative program with a graphic of President Obama as Adolf Hitler, a talent show called American Superstars on which a pathetic fat guy is ridiculed for his tuneless rendition of “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” and finally a show called American Murder that’s revisiting the 1966 shooting rampage of former marine sniper Charles Whitman. One needn’t be a genius to figure out where all this is heading.
To get there, Goldthwait subjects Frank to a series of existential pratfalls. An act of kindness to a coworker, misinterpreted as sexual harassment, gets him fired from his job. (“It’s not me,” his boss explains, “it’s the higher-ups.”) A subsequent visit to the doctor brings news that he’s dying of a brain tumor. (“Sir, you can’t be here,” a custodian tells Frank as he sits in the lobby, his head in his hands.) What pushes Frank over the edge, though, is the reality show Chloe’s Happy Birthday Sweet 16, on which he sees a horribly spoiled teenager shrieking at her parents because they’ve bought her the wrong car. Silencing the TV, Frank takes a call from his ex-wife and listens to his own school-age daughter wailing because she’s been given a Blackberry instead of the iPhone she wanted; her voice seems to be coming from Chloe’s mouth. That night Frank unpacks his old service revolver, steals his neighbor’s sports car, and sets off on an expedition to prevent Chloe from ever turning 17. (Speaking of spoiled, assorted spoilers follow.)
Taxi Driver hinges on Travis’s relationship with Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute he decides to rescue from her seedy pimp. Goldthwait borrows this element of the Scorsese movie too but turns it inside out: after Frank kills Chloe (in a hilariously inept ambush that plays like the Three Stooges with brain splatter), his suicide attempt in a cheap motel is interrupted by 16-year-old Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a classmate of Chloe’s who couldn’t be more pleased by her death. “Who are you gonna kill next?” chirps Roxy. “Do you take requests?” Frank returns to his task, sticking the revolver in his mouth, but the girl will have none of it: “With so many horrible people in the world who should be taking the big dirt nap, why quit now?” Before long the two have embarked on a cross-country murder spree that will ultimately bring them to the set of American Superstars to teach the country a hard lesson in humility.
Frank and Roxy may be a lot funnier than Travis and Iris, but in both cases the inherent creepiness of a grown man hanging around with a teenage girl is neutralized by his old-fashioned sense of decency. In Taxi Driver, Travis pushes Iris away in disgust when she tries to go down on him, and Frank is similarly uncooperative when Roxy asks him if he’s attracted to her. “I refuse to objectify a child,” Frank replies. “Fuck R. Kelly. Fuck Vladimir Nabokov. . . . Fuck Woody Allen and his whole ‘the heart wants what it wants’ bullshit. . . . Nobody cares that they damage other people.” When he and Roxy are forced to share the same hotel-room bed, Frank chastely sleeps with his feet on the pillow, and when she begins to undress in the bathroom, he quietly pulls the door shut. Yet a real tenderness develops between them: when Frank is stricken with one of his blinding headaches, Roxy relieves his agony by massaging a pressure point in the palm of his hand.
You can bet that when God Bless America opens on Friday, the folks at Fox News will come after it like a pack of wolves. Among the people Frank and Roxy blow away are the Hannity-style loudmouth from earlier in the movie, a bile-spewing homophobic activist, and a gaggle of chanting Tea Partiers. Goldthwait’s movies are easy to caricature as simple bad-taste comedies: Shakes the Clown (1991) is about an alcoholic birthday clown, Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006) deals with a woman who once gave her dog a blow job, and World’s Greatest Dad (2009) stars Robin Williams as a father who selfishly exploits his son’s death by erotic asphyxiation. As if Hannity and company needed any more reason to tee up God Bless America, Goldthwait appeared last weekend on Real Time With Bill Maher to promote the movie. “I saw the Tea Party,” he explained, “and a common poster they were holding up said, ‘We came unarmed—this time.’ And I was like, “OK—I see your crazy, and I raise your crazy.'”
God Bless America clearly has a political dimension, yet like Taxi Driver before it, the movie isn’t really partisan. Before resolving to rescue Iris, Travis Bickle hatches a plot to assassinate a U.S. senator who’s running for president, but the candidate in question speaks in the sort of empty populist slogans common to career politicians of either party. And despite Goldthwait’s antipathy for the Tea Party, Roxy’s kill list also includes hippies, people who wear crystals, people who buy “anarchy” T-shirts, and Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody (“the only stripper who suffers from too much self-esteem”). When Frank and Roxy finally corner the Hannity stand-in and he accuses them of targeting him for his politics, Frank admits, “I don’t hate your politics. In fact, I agree with you on some things.” Which things? “Less gun control, of course.” For all the movie’s liberal sentiment, its body count would impress Sylvester Stallone.
That sort of moral ambiguity is what makes Goldthwait the greatest comic filmmaker in the country. Just as Travis Bickle is lionized by the press after his shooting rampage, Frank and Roxy’s executions are continually misinterpreted in the media. After they blow away some rude people in a movie theater, commentators blame the documentary about the My Lai massacre that was showing, and after they take out the right-wing loudmouth, his fans speculate that he was killed by a terrorist sleeper cell. And Goldthwait seems well aware that murdering people who annoy you can be pretty hard to contain. In several scenes Frank and Roxy toss around ideas about whom to kill: NASCAR fans, people who dress their children in band T-shirts, people who guzzle energy drinks, people who use rock star as an adjective, people who say pumped, stoked, extreme, edgy, in-your-face. Then comes the uncomfortable moment when Frank holds up his palm to give Roxy a high-five and remembers that, by her calculus, people who give high-fives deserve to die.
For Frank, the real polarity in America isn’t the left versus the right, but the kind versus the unkind—and by design, the unkind always win. “American has become a cruel and vicious place,” Frank declares in the film’s climactic soliloquy. “We reward the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest, and the loudest. We no longer have any common sense of decency. No sense of shame. There’s no right and wrong. The worst qualities in people are looked up to and celebrated. Lying and spreading fear are fine, as long as you make money doing it. We’ve become a nation of slogan-saying, bile-spewing hate mongers. We’ve lost our kindness. We’ve lost our soul.” It’s a speech so ringing in its anger and despair, so serious in its intent, that it makes you wonder if God Bless America can properly be called a comedy at all.
Taxi Driver would never have entered the cultural firmament the way it has if people weren’t simultaneously horrified and gratified by Travis’s climactic bloodbath. God Bless America operates on the same principle but turns the carnage into slapstick, and because all laughter is involuntary you may wind up implicating yourself without even meaning to. As with the earlier movie, this one turns in on its own morality like a Möbius strip, endorsing kindness by practicing slaughter, and pulls us along for the ride. Detractors will call its reasoning ridiculous, and they’ll be right—though I doubt that will bother Goldthwait, who makes a living being ridiculous. Watch out, America: that clown has a gun, and there’s more inside it than a little flag reading POW!