Is it time to start taking Bobcat Goldthwait seriously as a director? That question may seem like a joke, but with his latest film, "God Bless America," it's becoming increasingly clear that the former standup comic and "Police Academy" star is trying to deliver oddly subversive indie films where the broad laughs are on top and the interesting ideas sit underneath. "God Bless America" isn't a great movie -- OK, it's not even a good movie -- but it's a genuinely thoughtful one. Very few people would have expected such a thing from the guy responsible for "Shakes the Clown."
"Shakes," Goldthwait's directorial debut about an alcoholic clown, was almost universally despised back when it came out in 1991, although it did inspire a pretty good R.E.M. song. That would have seemed to be the end of his filmmaking aspirations, and he went on to direct segments of "The Man Show" and "Chappelle's Show." But in 2006, he returned to the big screen with "Sleeping Dogs Lie," a romantic comedy-drama with a pretty twisted setup: A young woman who's recently gotten engaged admits to her fiance that she once out of boredom performed oral sex on her dog. It seemed like a crass, "outrageous" premise, but reviewers were generally impressed with the movie's emotional honesty and sophisticated look at relationships. Still, most people just knew it as "that movie about the woman who has sex with a dog."
Then in 2009, Goldthwait returned with "World's Greatest Dad," a superb movie that once again had a broad comedic hook but was far more intriguing in the execution. Robin Williams played a frustrated author and school teacher who can't connect with his horny, repulsive, foul-mouthed son (Daryl Sabara). Then one day the kid accidentally kills himself through autoerotic asphyxiation, and Williams decides to make it look like suicide, penning a note in his son's voice. Instead, it turns out that the note inspires his classmates and teachers, which prompts the father to "produce" more of his son's "writings," capitalizing on the death to advance his own writing aspirations. What starts out as a jerky-kid-and-his-ineffectual-dad comedy turned into something much deeper: a portrait of failure and the need to elevate people to the level of heroes and martyrs. And it was often really funny when it wasn't heartbreaking.
Goldthwait's latest, "God Bless America," again comes across at first as a pretty obvious, one-note satire. Frank (Joel Murray) is a middle-aged nobody who's tired of the inanity of life: the dumb reality shows, the hypocritical religious leaders, the bullying right-wing talk show hosts, the fascination with celebrity and gossip. So Frank decides to take vengeance on the people he thinks deserve it, going on a killing spree while assisted by teen outcast Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr), who becomes the Bonnie to his Clyde, without the love affair.
For too much of its running time, "God Bless America" plays out precisely as you think it will. Another version of the "Network"/"Falling Down"/"Natural Born Killers"/everything-is-going-to-hell template, the movie follows along as Frank and Roxy take out the most useless and annoying people in society, gleefully gunning down reality stars and people who talk in movies, cueing the audience to applaud that these individuals are finally getting what's coming to them. But the problem is that Goldthwait doesn't do much to make his targets truly infuriating enough to really justify their cold-blooded murders. Goldthwait seems to assume that'll we automatically hate "American Idol" as much as he does, and so we'll be thrilled to see a Simon Cowell clone take one in the chest.
But then something happens that makes "God Bless America" far more nervy and complicated than it first seemed. I won't say what, but while it doesn't completely justify the rather predictable acting-out that occurs earlier in the film, it suggests that Goldthwait isn't just interested in going off on Bill O'Reilly and TMZ but also wants to say something meaningful about wish fulfillment and vigilante score-settling. Goldthwait's visual style remains rather amateurish, and his cast's performances can run the gamut from good to mediocre. He's still got a long way to go to become a great filmmaker. But the ideas are there, at least, which means that the possibility exists that one of these days, he's going to knock one out of the park. Wouldn't that be funny?