SXSW Movie Review: GOD BLESS AMERICA And The Dangers OF Didacticism

Bobcat Goldthwait is an incredibly exciting filmmaker, but this third film GOD BLESS AMERICA misses the mark for Hulk.

SXSW Movie Review: GOD BLESS AMERICA And The Dangers OF Didacticism

MANY OF YOU BADASSES MAY ALREADY REALIZE THIS, BUT BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT IS ONE OF AMERICA’S MOST EXCITING FILMMAKERS. AFTER THE INITIAL TRIALS OF SHAKES THE CLOWN AND THE LURID INSANITY OF WINDY CITY HEAT, IT WAS ACTUALLY SLEEPING DOGS LIE THAT ESTABLISHED HIM AS SOMEONE TO WATCH. HE SUDDENLY HAD THIS GREAT SENSIBILITY AND WAS SOMEHOW ABLE TO MAKE A FUNNY, SWEET AND HUMANE FILM WITH "A TASTEFUL AMOUNT OF BESTIALITY” (HIS WORDS). BUT REALLY IT WAS HIS FOLLOWUP WORLD’S GREATEST DAD WHICH CEMENTED HIM AS SOMETHING SPECIAL IN HULK'S MIND. IT IS A NEAR-PERFECT FILM: DARK. TWISTED. HILARIOUS. AND HAUNTINGLY PERCEPTIVE TO THE LENGTHS A HUMAN BEING WILL GO FOR A CERTAIN KIND OF ATTENTION. IT MARKED A REAL EVOLUTION FOR GOLDTHWAIT AS A STORYTELLER AND SHOWED THAT HIS VOICE WAS FULLY ASSURED.

AND SO IT WAS WITH GREAT INTEREST THAT HULK ENTERED GOLDTHWAIT’S THIRD FILM, GOD BLESS AMERICA, WHICH IS A GONZO SKEWERING OF POP CULTURE THROUGH THE EYES OF TWO WAYWARD GUN-TOTING HEROES. THIS OLDER MAN AND TEENAGE GIRL RIDE ACROSS THE COUNTRYSIDE, KILLING ALL THE TRULY GREAT ASSHOLES OUR SOCIETY HAS TO OFFER. AND WITH THIS SORT OF CONCEIT, ONE SALIVATES AT THE IDEA THAT GOLDTHWAIT ESSENTIALLY HAS CARTE-BLANCHE ON AMERICAN SOCIAL COMMENTARY.

AND SADLY, IT RUNS OUT OF THINGS OF THINGS TO SAY REALLY, REALLY QUICKLY.

TO WIT: THE FILM OPENS WITH A DARKLY BEAUTIFUL SEQUENCE WHERE A MIDDLE-AGED, MIDDLE CLASS DIVORCÉE BY THE NAME OF FRANK BEMOANS THE LACK OF CONSIDERATION SHOWN BY HIS IRRITATING NEIGHBORS. HE ARTICULATES THEIR PERFECT STUPIDITY WITH SUCH MEASURED CALM, AND AFTER A PARTICULARLY LOUD NIGHT, HE RESORTS TO SOME TRULY HILARIOUS AND GRUESOME THOUGHTS. GOLDTHWAIT IS MAKING IT CLEAR IMMEDIATELY: THIS MOVIE IS NOT FOR THE LIGHT-HEARTED. NOR FOR THOSE WHO DON'T HAVE A SKEWED SENSE OF HUMOR. BUT THE FILM IMMEDIATELY MOVES ALONG AND BEGINS TO ADDRESS ITS LARGER CONCERNS. FRANK STAYS UP WATCHING LATE NIGHT TV. WE STREAM THE DOWNS AND DOWNS THAT THE CULTURE GLUT HAS TO OFFER: POLITICS. REALITY TV. SELF-OBSESSED ASSHOLES. INCREDIBLE JERKTITUDE. AND OVER THE COURSE OF THE NEXT MORNING, GOLDTHWAIT DEFTLY TAKES US THROUGH THE HORROR OF THE INSTA-QUICK TV/NEWS CYCLE. A SIMPLE VOYAGE TO FRANK'S DESK IS FRAUGHT WITH AN ASSAULT ON BASIC DECENCY AND EVERYONE SAYING MEAN THINGS UNDER THE GUISE OF JUST "TELLIN' IT LIKE IT IS!" SO WHEN ALL OF THIS FINALLY CATCHES UP WITH FRANK, HE STARTS MAKING A FEW CONTRADICTORY ASIDES TO HIS COWORKER. SOON ENOUGH HE'S MAKING AN IMPASSIONED SPEECH ON WHY CIVILIZATION CAN’T BE A CIVILIZATION IF WE’RE NOT GOING TO BE CIVILIZED... THE MOMENT REALLY RESONATES. THERE'S SUCH GREAT BUILD TO IT AND IT CAPS OFF BEAUTIFULLY.  THE AUDIENCE HULK WAS WITH EVEN CLAPPED AND CHEERED.

… THIS IS THE FILM’S CLIMAX.

AND IT HAPPENS ABOUT 15 MINUTES INTO THE MOVIE.

MAKE NO MISTAKE, AT NO POINT IN THE FILM THAT FOLLOWS IS THIS “CENTRAL POINT” ARTICULATED BETTER AND WITH SUCH DESERVING FOCUS THAN THIS EARLY MOMENT. THIS WOULD BE FINE IF THE FILM WAS INTERESTED IN EXPLORING THE REST OF THIS IDEA THROUGH VISUAL OR DRAMATIC MEANS, BUT IT ISN'T INTERESTED IN THAT AT ALL. GOLDTHWAIT CAN'T SEEM TO LET GO OF RE-ARTICULATING THIS SPEECH ABOUT SOCIETY'S GENERAL "MEANNESS" AGAIN AND AGAIN. AND NO MATTER HOW DESERVING THE SUBJECT IS, IT STILL RESULTS IN A KIND OF CINEMATIC PONTIFICATION. WORSE, IT NEVER SEEMS TO BUILD TO ANYTHING. IT MERELY TRIES TO REINFORCE THE SAME IDEA IN CYCLICAL FASHION (SORTA KINDA SPOILER BUT NOT REALLY??? THE FILM CULMINATES WITH BASICALLY AN INFERIOR VERSION OF THE EXACT SAME SPEECH GIVEN ABOVE).

IT’S NOT AS IF GOD BLESS AMERICA IS BORING, MIND YOU. IT’S OFTEN ENTERTAINING AND RATHER FUNNY (ONE OF HULK’S NOW-FAVORITE GAGS EVER INVOLVES A BURNING HANDKERCHIEF). BUT IT'S JUST THAT THERE IS NO EVOLUTION OR ARC TO THE STORY'S THEMATIC LEVEL. THE FILM LITERALLY PLAYS LIKE A SCRATCHING OFF A LIST OF TARGETS, EACH NO MORE INTERESTING OR COMPLEX THAN THE LAST. WHILE WORLD’S GREATEST DAD WAS ABOUT THE EVOLUTION OF A BAD REACTION INTO A BAD LINE OF THINKING INTO A BAD LIFESTYLE, THIS FILM IS MORE ABOUT CHRONIC FIXATION AND AXE-GRINDING.

SADLY, THE FILM HAS OTHER PROBLEMS. FRANK’S PARTNER IN CRIME, THE 16 YEAR OLD ROXY... WELL, SHE BARELY EVER MAKES SENSE. ON A THEMATIC LEVEL YOU CAN GIVE IT SOME CREDIT: SHE'S A CLEAR STAND-IN FOR TEENAGE DISASSOCIATION, BUT AT TIMES SHE JUST BORDERS ON FULL-ON PSYCHOPATHY. IT JUST ISN'T ARTICULATED WITH HALF OF THE ORGANIC CHARACTERIZATION AND EMPATHY THAT WE GET WITH OUR MAN FRANK. SPEAKING OF WHICH, A HUGE AMOUNT OF CREDIT GOES TO GOLDTHWAIT FOR CASTING THE WONDERFUL CHARACTER ACTOR JOEL MURRAY IN THE LEAD, AS HE PRACTICALLY EMBODIES THAT CHARACTER EFFORTLESSLY. REALLY, MURRAY TURNS IN SOME GREAT WORK HERE AND HULK CAN'T PICTURE ANYONE ELSE DOING IT AS EFFECTIVELY. BUT WHEN IT COMES TO ROXY'S EMBODIMENT, SHE CAN'T HELP BUT FEEL SOMEWHAT LIKE A HALF-BAKED IDEA IN COMPARISON. AT BEST, THE FILM REALLY USES THEIR RELATIONSHIP TO FOCUS ON SOCIETY'S PROFANE SEXUALIZATION OF YOUNG GIRLS. AND AT WORST, IT SOMETIMES FEELS LIKE ROXY'S THERE JUST TO GIVE FRANK SOMEONE TO TALK TO.

BUT ROXY'S LACK OF ORGANIC EFFECT WOULD BE A MUCH BIGGER PROBLEM IF THE FILM WAS ULTIMATELY DEPENDING ON THEIR RELATIONSHIP. IT'S NICE AND EVERYTHING, BUT NOTHING THAT HAPPENS IN THE FILM REALLY HINGES ON IT... AT ALL. IT'S ULTIMATELY ABOUT FRANK AND IT'S ABOUT A LONG SERIES OF SPEECHES ON SIMILAR / STUPID TOPICS... GAH... THE SPEECHES JUST DON'T STOP. WE ALL KNOW THE OLD ADAGE OF "SHOW, DON'T TELL" BUT THIS FILM REALLY STOPS TO TAKE EVERY MOMENT IT CAN TO "TELL."

AND THE END RESULT IS A DIDACTIC FILM... WHICH IS ACTUALLY A BIG PROBLEM IN THIS CASE BECAUSE IT SETS THE FILM UP TO BE DEEPLY HYPOTHETICAL.

SURE, MOST PEOPLE WON'T KICK UP A FUSS ABOUT THE FILM BEING DIDACTIC BECAUSE THE FILM ISN'T REALLY TARGETING MUCH IN THE WAY OF COMPLICATED TERRITORY. WE'RE ONLY TALKING ABOUT THE FRED PHELPS CRAZIES. REALITY STARS. POLITICAL BLOWHARDS. HECK, THE BIGGEST GROUP IT STANDS TO OFFEND IS PEOPLE WHO LIKE AMERICAN IDOL. BUT IN THIS BULLET RAMPAGE IT ESSENTIALLY "WINGS" A WHOLE BUNCH OF OTHER TOPICS WHICH MAY OR MAY NOT BE OF INTEREST TO PEOPLE. AND REGARDLESS OF SINCERITY AND VALIDITY, THERE IS THIS THING THAT HAPPENS WHERE PEOPLE DON'T LIKE TO HAVE THEIR INTERESTS BELITTLED. THEY JUST DON'T. AND WHY WOULD THEY? PEOPLE LIKE WHAT THEY LIKE AND IT'S AT THE CENTER OF ALMOST EVERY DISAGREEMENT ON THE PLANET. BUT THE WAY GOLDTHWAIT POSITIONS THE FILM IS RATHER BELITTLING TO ANYONE WHO MIGHT ACTUALLY LIKE OR AGREE WITH THESE ISSUES.

REALLY. THIS ACTUALLY MATTERS. PEOPLE CAN'T BE TALKED DOWN TO. PEOPLE CAN'T BE SHOUTED AT (SAYS THE ALL-CAPS HULK, NOTING THE IRONY). EVEN IF FRANK'S MISSION IS ONE OF GOOD INTENT, HIS MEANS ESSENTIALLY DO ALL THE 'SHOUTING" FOR HIM. THE LESSON OF DIDACTICISM IS ULTIMATELY THAT ONE CAN'T SEEM DIDACTIC, EVEN IF THE INTENTION IS TO ACTUALLY SHARE AN IDEA. AN IDEA ALWAYS WORKS BEST WHEN IT IS SHOWN. WHEN IT IS GROUNDED IN EMPATHY. AND IF AN IDEA IS TOLD, IT HAS TO TOLD WITH CARE AND UNDERSTANDING. MUTUAL RESPECT IS THE BASIC FOUNDATION OF HOW PEOPLE ABSORB IDEAS. GO TALK TO ANY TEACHER ON THE PLANET AND THEY'LL AGREE. NOW IT WOULD BE ONE THING IF GOLDTHWAIT WERE JUST INTERESTED IN HAVING FUN, BUT HE'S NOT. HE'S GOT A MISSION HERE AND HE'S GONNA BEAT IT INTO YOUR HEAD NO MATTER WHAT. AND HE'S GOING TO ACCOMPLISH NOTHING.

NOW, ONE MAY ARGUE THIS "SHOUTING" ELEMENT IS PART OF THE FILM BEING A SATIRE, AND THAT'S TOTALLY A VALID ARGUMENT... EXCEPT FOR THE FACT THAT GOD BLESS AMERICA ISN'T A SATIRE WHATSOEVER. IT'S A BLACK COMEDY CENTERED AROUND AN HONEST PLEA. WHICH MEANS IT'S ABOUT AS FAR AWAY FROM THE SENSIBILITY AND TONAL DEVICES OF NETWORK ONE CAN IMAGINE. TO BE HONEST, GOLDTHWAIT DOESN'T EVEN SEEM TO UNDERSTAND THE CORE CONCEPT OF HOW TO MAKE THAT KIND OF FILM. THAT MAY SEEM CRUEL, BUT SATIRES EITHER DISTANCE YOU FROM WHAT IS BEING EXPRESSED OR PURPOSEFULLY MAKE YOU COMPLICIT TO REVEAL A GREATER PROBLEM.... AND THIS FILM JUST FEEDS THE FIRE. IT FEEDS THE DICHOTOMY. IT FEEDS THE BLACK AND WHITE UNDERSTANDING OF THE THINGS THAT THE AUTHOR THINKS ARE STUPID AND THE THINGS THAT ARE NOT...  WHICH ALL LEADS US TO THE SINGLE MOST PROBLEMATIC FEATURE OF THE FILM:

AT NO POINT DOES THE CRITICISM GET POINTED INWARD.

AFTER ALL, SHOOTING PEOPLE IS ITS OWN KIND OF MEANNESS, RIGHT? HULK MEAN, HULK'S NOT CRAZY IN SAYING THAT. THEY'RE CHASTISING PEOPLE FOR ESSENTIALLY ENGAGING IN EXTREME, UNFORGIVING BEHAVIOR AND THEIR SOLUTION IS TO...  ENGAGE IN EXTREME, UNFORGIVING BEHAVIOR. IT'S THE ULTIMATE CATCH 22. AND ONE HULK LIKES TO THINK MOST YOUNG, ANGRY KIDS FIGURE OUT BY COLLEGE. AND AS THE FILM WENT ON, HULK KEPT WAITING FOR THE INEVITABLE CRITICISM OF FRANK AND ROXY'S BEHAVIOR. GOLDTHWAIT HAD BEEN TOO SMART IN THE PAST NOT TO ULTIMATELY GO THERE... BUT NO. FRANK AND ROXY ARE TOTALLY THE RALLYING POINTS TO THE CAUSE OF ANTI-MEANNESS. HEROES IMMORTALIZED ON FILM. FORGET THE SECURITY GUARD THEY JUST SHOT, PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW THAT AMERICAN IDOL IS STUPID! HULK SURE HE FIT THE MISSION STATEMENT AND "DESERVED TO DIE," RIGHT? ... UGH... SERIOUSLY, IF MEANNESS IS SUCH A DAMN PROBLEM THAN ISN'T HAVING A LONG-WINDED RANT ABOUT DIABLO CODY JUST AS MEAN? AND PERHAPS EVEN MORE MISGUIDED?

ULTIMATELY, THE MOMENT FEELS LIKE GOLDTHWAIT JUST “TELLIN’ IT LIKE IT IS.”

... OUCH.

IT DOESN'T TAKE A GENIUS TO FIGURE OUT THAT FRANK MIGHT BE WRONG ABOUT SOCIETY. PERHAPS EVEN A RE-WATCH OF SOMETHING RATHER SIMPLE LIKE MIDNIGHT IN PARIS MIGHT ILLUMINATE HIM TO THE REALIZATION THAT SOCIETY HASN'T ACTUALLY GOTTEN MEANER. IT IS AS IT EVER WAS. NOT TO GO ON TOO MUCH OF A TANGENT HERE, BUT REALLY, THE NATURE OF SOCIETY HASN'T REALLY ALTERED MUCH FROM ROMAN TIMES. THAT MAY SOUND STRANGE, BUT OUR EMOTIONAL MAKE-UP, PSYCHOLOGY AND SOCIAL STRUCTURE IS NEAR IDENTICAL. SURE, SOCIETIES GENERALLY SWING IN AND OUT OF BOUTS WITH LIBERALISM AND CONSERVATIVISM, DEMOCRACY AND TOTALITARIANISM, PEACE AND WAR. WE ALWAYS MOVE ALONG THE RAILS OF TECHNOLOGY AND ARE GUIDED BY TIMING, BUT THE CORE ESSENCE OF SOCIETY'S DISPOSITION HAS NOT ERODED OVER ANY PERIOD OF TIME. WE ARE NO MORE MEAN THAN WE WERE IN THE DAYS OF FRANK'S CHILDHOOD. GOD BLESS AMERICA PROPAGATES ONE OF THE GREAT MYTHS, ONE THAT GOES ALL THE WAY BACK TO EVEN THE GREAT MIND OF ARISTOTLE AND HIS WHOLE "KIDS TODAY!" ATTITUDE, THAT SOCIETY IS INHERENTLY WORSE THAN IT WAS YESTERDAY.(1)

AND IT DOESN'T TAKE A GENIUS TO FIGURE OUT THAT MUCH OF ROXY'S ALIENATION IS EITHER A CASE OF GENUINE MENTAL HEALTH DISTRESS OR THE MERE TRIALS OF BEING A TEENAGER.

HULK CAN'T HELP BUT ADMIT THAT THE WHOLE SENTIMENT OF BOTH CHARACTERS AND THE MOVIE AT LARGE COMES OFF AS VAGUELY JUVENILE. THE WHOLE WAR ON POP CULTURE, THE REASONS FOR DOING SO, THE  IMPASSIONED NATURE OF RESPONSE... IT SORT OF FEELS LIKE THAT YOUNG, ANGRY GUY WHO DOESN'T REALIZE THAT THESE THINGS DON'T ACTUALLY HAVE TO BOTHER YOU (HULK OFTEN DOES FINE WITH JUST PLAIN OLD IGNORING IT). AND BECAUSE OF THIS, HULK ALWAYS FEELS THE FILM HAS THIS OBVIOUS, GREATER REALIZATION JUST HOVERING OVER ALL OF IT, NEVER TO BE FOUND.

THIS ISN'T TO SAY HULK DOESN'T RECOMMEND SEEING THE MOVIE EITHER. AS HULK MENTIONED BEFORE IT'S ACTUALLY PRETTY FUNNY AND GOLDTHWAIT HAS BOTH A WAY WITH WORDS AND COMIC BRUTALITY... IT'S JUST THAT HULK REALLY DOESN'T LIKE WHAT IT SAYS, HOW IT SAYS IT AND HOW IT SOMETIMES SEEMS TO BE CONFUSED ABOUT WHAT IT SHOULD BE REALLY SAYING.

AND IT'S PARTICULARLY DISAPPOINTING GIVEN THAT WORLD’S GREATEST DAD POINTED INWARD AT THE DEEPEST CORNERS OF OUR SOULS AND FOUND THIS POWERFUL, SAD AND SOMEWHAT FUNNY SELF-REALIZATION... AND IT'S PRECISELY THAT KIND OF HUMANITY THAT IS MISSING IN ALL OF GOD BLESS AMERICA'S ATTEMPTS TO POINT OUTWARD.

<3 HULK

ENDNOTE:

(1) - THIS ISN'T TO SAY HULK PLAYING THE "THIS HAS BEEN HAPPENING FOREVER" CARD AND CHALKING SOCIETY'S ILLS UP TO A MATTER OF NON-CONCERN. NO, THIS IS NOT SOME EXCUSE TO LET SOCIETY BE. IF YOU KNOW HULK AT ALL YOU'LL KNOW THAT HULK ALWAYS TRIES TO BE ONE OF THE BIGGEST ADVOCATES OF GENERAL DECENCY POSSIBLE. IT'S JUST THAT ONE HAS TO REALIZE THAT COMBATING THE ILLS OF SOCIETY IS FUNDAMENTALLY NOT A MATTER OF TAKING UP ARMS, BUT ENGAGING IN EMPATHY. AND IF THAT'S THE GOAL, WHY BUILD A CHARACTER AROUND EMPATHY AND THEN GIVE US EVERY TANGIBLE REASON NOT TO LISTEN TO HIM? IT'S NOT THAT GOLDTHWAITH'S CONCERNS AREN'T VALID; IT'S HIS PROBLEMATIC ARTICULATION.

Film Crit Hulk's photo About the Author: FILM CRIT HULK WAS CREATED IN A CHAOTIC LAB EXPERIMENT INVOLVING GAMMA RADIATION, TELEPODS, AND THE GHOST OF PAULINE KAEL. NOW HULK HAVE DEEP AND ABIDING LOVE CINEMA.
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