Like a middle-aged Travis Bickle in a series of ugly sweaters and Hawaiian shirts, Joel Murray dreams of washing the scum from the streets in Bobcat Goldthwait’s pitch-black comedy God Bless America. But Murray isn’t interested in hustlers, pimps, and petty thugs. His wrath is fueled by the ignorant mopes that fill the world around him – hateful religious fanatics, fear-mongering political pundits, and anyone who fails to practice proper movie theater etiquette. Fired from his job and facing the prospect of a long battle with brain cancer, a suicidal Murray embraces a macabre form of therapy when he turns his gun on those who aggravate him the most. By gunning down his first victim – a spoiled reality show princess – he impresses a similarly disgruntled teenage sidekick (Tara Lynne Barr) and the pair embarks on a cross-country murder spree, punishing all the people who made Murray so desperate to end his life in the first place.
The veteran character actor Murray is perfectly cast as an unusual breed of anti-hero, his folksy cadence and sideways smile lending a strange warmth to what is obviously Goldthwait’s own meticulous list of pet peeves. Though his invective starts off harsh and uncompromising – “Why have a civilization anymore if we no longer are interested in being civilized?” Murray asks a doltish co-worker – he quickly gains perspective once the bullets begin to fly. He’s only willing to kill people who “deserve” to die, unlike the more impulsive and ego-driven Barr (a good actress who is unfortunately saddled with Goldthwait’s more condescending rhetoric). Their relationship is the most enjoyable part of the film. In one of many instances of Goldthwait echoing Taxi Driver, Murray is a principled but unstable older man futilely obsessed with preserving a modicum of innocence in a teenage girl who is already far too mature for her age. (There’s even a scene of Murray buying guns in a motel room that eerily matches Scorsese’s beats.)
While God Bless America‘s satire is mostly a success, it’s sometimes undercut by the sense that Goldthwait has chosen the easiest targets. A discomfiting air of superiority settles over certain parts of the film, particularly those that lampoon the news media, as well as Barr’s arrogant rant about the greatness of Alice Cooper. Overall, though, God Bless America is just crazy enough to work: you have to admire a movie that makes a running joke of the wildly inappropriate (and decidedly one-way) romantic tension between the leads (“So we’re platonic spree killers?” whines Barr). It saves its greatest disdain for the irredeemably mean and inconsiderate, the people who have no idea of how their words and actions affect others. In that, God Bless America isn’t particularly groundbreaking, or even that shocking. What does impress is Goldthwait’s outrageous way of articulating his many frustrations, and his ability to make sick behavior seem like an appropriate remedy for an equally sick society.
“God Bless America” is available now via On Demand and opens in limited release on May 11.