‘Rant cinema’ has never caught on – perhaps because the time-consuming, collaborative nature of filmmaking encourages reflection and compromise. Sure, you’ve got the likes of Michael Moore, but in the arena of fiction there’s only Oliver Stone, and even he’s softened with the years.
Well, Bobcat Goldthwait is here to revive the genre with a film that takes everything this American stand-up-turned-writer-director hates about modern society, puts a gun to its head and pulls the trigger. Like any rant, it’s messy, unfocused and blinded by rage. But it’s also heartfelt, hilarious and, at times, heart-stoppingly powerful.
Recognisable bit-part sad sack Joel Murray (brother of Bill) plays Frank, a middle-aged, middlebrow divorcee and father whose life takes a series of downward turns, peaking with the revelation that he has inoperable brain cancer. Suicidal and sickened by the selfishness and cynicism of what passes for popular culture, Frank tools up and heads cross country, bumping off everyone he decides deserves it, from rich-bitch reality TV stars to people who talk in cinemas, acquiring a sidekick – disgruntled teen, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) – along the way.
As proven by his last two features – ‘Sleeping Dogs Lie’ and the stunning ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ – Goldthwait is a filmmaker who prizes empathy above all, and the best scenes in ‘God Bless America’ are the small moments between Murray and Barr. The uncertainty which colours this oddball relationship is beautifully observed, a warm heart to what could have been a cold, hateful film.
But that empathy doesn’t extend to right-wing talk show hosts and ‘American Idol’ contestants, all of whom meet a nasty end. A strong case could be made that ‘God Bless America’ would be more impactful if Goldthwait had made his hate-figures less personal – cinema talkers, bad parkers – and more universal: there are times when the film feels like the bitter ravings of a grumpy old man.
But as curmudgeonly grumbles go, this is thrillingly insightful and smart. A series of lengthy dialogue scenes, in which Goldthwait uses Murray as a mouthpiece to voice all of his most cherished complaints about life, are witty and wise. His big argument – that farting ringtones and exploitative TV contests aren’t just a bit of fun but indicate a yawning emptiness at the heart of modern society – is difficult to refute, and though the presentation may be flawed, the whole effect is bracing and thought-provoking. Everyone in the so-called civilised world should see this.