Reality TV is a cesspool of broken dreams and bad decisions. Advertising is a grifters game for snake oil merchants and soul-sucking suits. The 24 hour media cycle dumps regurgitated offal into a vast intellectual wasteland. Already spurious notions of celebrity and stardom continue to swing further into the realms of the wretched as we tsk-tsk the fickle attention spans of the Youtube generation.

This is the gospel according to writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s snarky new comedy God Bless America, about a man who deals with long pent-up discontent by snapping like a twig and going on a murderous rampage. The film shows its pessimistic hand early, expresses these familiar condemnatory talking points with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the nads.

Frank (Joel Murray) sits slumped on his couch in front of the teev like a sack of potatoes, blearily absorbing the day-to-the-day take-out of pop meeja while fantasising about riddling his inconsiderate neighbours with bullets.

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In one acerbically eloquent workplace ramble, Frank vents to a colleague about the declining state of, well, everything, and is fired shortly after for no good reason. If you’ve seen so much as a poster or still of this film, heard the vaguest outline of its plot, you know what’s in the mail, and it’s going postal: a Falling Down style reappraisal of Frank’s existence. He sets out to improve the vacuousness of the world by killing those — mostly celebrities — he deems guiltiest, accompanied by a crazy-eyed teenage girl (Tara Lynne Barr) with a fetish for violence and a Juno-like flair for bitchy banter.

From the get-go Goldthwait (whose 2010 jet black dramedy World’s Greatest Dad is an under-the-radar doozie) flavours God Bless America with the smarmy self-righteousness of coked-up lefties writing satire in between eps of The Daily Show and dips in the spa. There’s nothing inaccurate or uninformed about the film’s quasi-apocalyptic cynicism; in fact, there’s a bipartisan truthfulness to its chest thumping, particularly its condemnation of lowest denominator media and the cultural contexts that allow — nay, encourage — such idiocy to flourish.

But God Bless America, virtually bereft of a third act, saddles itself with a preachy one trick pony premise. It’s like a gun-toting version of Network’s Howard Beale got inside the skin of Falling Down‘s William Foster and started pointing, clicking and mouthing off. It’s funny and often well written — particularly the first act, an explosion of salty all-out satire — but the jokes and amusingly effusive monologues wear thin when it becomes clear the film doesn’t have anything interesting to say.

And, ah yes, Network (1976) — the film that pipped this one, and virtually every other cinematic sledging of the media, to the post, a cool three and a half decades ago. Sidney Lumet’s prothetic classic saw the writing on the wall before there was a wall, dismantled reality television before anyone had thought to build it, and went further with bitterly incisive commentary on broadcast culture than any film before or after it.

As a smug reminder that Network was right — that this is mass madness, you maniacs, and to hell with you for tuning in — God Bless America isn’t bad. It’s steered by a perfectly pitched baggy-eyed performance from Joel Murray, who helps make its shortcomings always tolerable.

Guilty of tarring the film with the same brush Goldthwait claims has helped soil our collective senses, the writer/director opts for spectacle over substance and comes up with gleefully hypocritical watch-a-plane-crash hyperreality.

It’s hard to get this kind of self-reflexive double-think right: to criticise what you’re doing while you’re doing it and not become a twisted slinky of contradictions. That was never in Goldthwait’s scope, or if it was, it never eventualised; instead he relies on expounding a familiar condescending sentiment, that lounge room America is stoopid and getting stoopider. Just as it’s hard to disagree, it’s equally hard to accept that all a man as gifted as Goldthwait can do is point, laugh and reload.

God Bless America played as part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival and opens in select cinemas from November 15. 

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Jess
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