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Discomfort Zone

By Laura Kern

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With God Bless America, comedian-turned auteur Bobcat Goldthwait continues to refine the art of turning bad taste into serious fun

God Bless America

In his heyday as a performer, Bobcat Goldthwait, with that unmistakable screechy voice a few decibels above comfort level, was someone people often wished would shut the hell up. But with the arrival of his latest pitch-black comedy God Bless America, “that annoying guy” from the stand-up stage and silly Eighties comedies, the one who set his Tonight Show chair on fire and was kicked off The Hollywood Squares, has solidified his place as one of the bravest independent filmmakers working today—an unlikely movie actor turned unlikely auteur. He certainly never lacked for material, and when people actually took the time to look beyond the manic shtick, they’d find that he was sharp-witted and curiously articulate, even when nearly incomprehensible. But through a different mouthpiece—the films he writes and directs—the messages come through loud and clear.

That’s not to say that Goldthwait was an unwelcome presence in the Eighties, but he was by no means for all tastes. He was goofy-looking, with crazy hair and a wardrobe to match (not to mention that voice again, kind of like Grover on helium). But his supporting turns in decent films—as one half of a dimwitted towtruck-driving duo who wear corresponding “I am with stupid”/“Stupid” T-shirts in One Crazy Summer (86); playing Whoopi Goldberg’s best friend, as loyal and seemingly clueless as the poodles he grooms for a living, in Burglar (87); and as a sad sack who returns to work with a shotgun to get back at the humbug of a boss who fired him in Scrooged (88)—lent him some lowbrow cachet. And so too, perhaps more enduringly, did his work in the terrible ones, most notably in Police Academy 2-4 (85-87) as Zed, the obnoxious leader of a streetpunk gang, who in part 3 crosses over to the other side of the law, and in a rare starring role in Hot to Trot (88), in which a talking horse provided Goldthwait with hot stock tips and lined up Eighties teen queen Virginia Madsen as his love interest. (To be fair, this latter curiosity was reviled, even by Goldthwait, a bit more vehemently than it deserved.) In any case, however doltish or unabashedly un-PC, his characters are ultimately strangely endearing—and the same can be said for those that populate the films he writes, something he attributes to his comedy roots. “I guess I have the same approach to directing that I do to stand-up—see how far you can push the audience and still have them love you by the end,” he says via email. “That’s how I’ve always been, so I don’t know if it’s fearlessness or just the kind of idiot I am.”

Given that they tackle touchy subjects—alcoholism, taboo sex, teenage suicide, and the bankruptcy of American culture—Goldthwait’s four theatrical features to date (he’s also made one for television, 2003’s Windy City Heat) could be described as comedies of discomfort. On the surface they sound crude, even off-putting, and each memorably kicks off with a zinger to set an appropriately uneasy tone, but underneath they’re full of unexpected intelligence and heart.

Shakes the Clown

His directorial debut, Shakes the Clown (91), begins with a kid finding his mom, played by Florence Henderson, passed out on the couch and a naked clown called Shakes on the bathroom floor. The little boy accidentally pees on him, and Shakes pukes. Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Goldthwait, writer-director-star. Goldthwait’s Shakes is an alcoholic party clown who hates children but loves the ladies (as his neglected girlfriend, Julie Brown takes the Most Annoying Voice award, for Goldthwait’s is uncharacteristically restrained). His professional rival, Binky the Clown, is more debauched, murderous even, and so in a movie without heroes, Shakes is as close as it gets—almost by default, he becomes someone to root for. This is the only Goldthwait film in which he plays the lead (though he appears briefly in the next two). “I’m much happier behind the camera,” he says, “which works out because I’m also not a very good actor.” Fans of Shakes, a minor cult classic, would beg to differ.

Goldthwait likes to joke that it’s with this phase of his career that people began to think he was dead—not just because he was often confused with his deceased loudmouth comedian rival Sam Kinison but also because he moved further out of the spotlight. For a variety of reasons (television- directing gigs, animation voice work, etc.—this is, after all, a man with some odd career moments, e.g., opening for Nirvana in 1993), his next film didn’t come for 15 years. And come it did: Sleeping Dogs Lie (06) opens with an innocent little act of bestiality as its thoroughly sympathetic heroine (Melinda Page Hamilton) blows her dog (off screen) one lonely night during college. Years later she’s still wrestling with this ill-advised act, a secret she reluctantly confesses to her fiancé, and inadvertently her cracked-up brother, with damning results. But as tasteless as this may sound, Sleeping Dogs Lie is actually a tender film with the woolly moral that “it’s trying to live up to the lies we tell about ourselves that makes us better people”— something we can all relate to. World’s Greatest Dad (09) is likewise a sweet movie about lying—or a slightly warped movie about honesty, depending on how you look at it. It opens with single dad Lance (Robin Williams) walking in on his insufferable teenage son, Kyle, engaging in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation, a pursuit that later leads to his accidental death. Lance, a nice-guy poetry teacher and wannabe writer, uses Kyle’s death to his advantage by fabricating a suicide note and then his son’s diaries, which instill the unpopular boy with some previously nonexistent depth. (Perhaps he’s familiar with Prosperity Through Exploitation, the book Goldthwait hawks in an amusing faux TV ad in 1988’s Tapeheads.) When a neighbor refers to Kyle as having been zombie-ish in life, Lance responds, “I wish. I like zombies.” (Apparently so does Goldthwait—his next project, Ankle Biters, will be a “pro-choice zombie movie.”) Williams gives his finest performance in recent memory in World’s Greatest Dad (or at least since his brief, hilarious turn as a mime in Shakes the Clown).

By Goldthwait’s account, God Bless America is “a violent movie about kindness,” and there are perhaps no better words to describe it. In the most extreme of the director’s string of extreme intros, a snot-nosed, incessantly wailing baby is blasted to smithereens with a shotgun—but it’s soon revealed to be just the fantasy of the protagonist, for this is a film that, despite its misanthropy, ultimately expresses deep concern for the future of humankind.

The wishful thinker, Frank (Joel Murray, in a career-making performance), who suffers from migraines, extreme loneliness, and an allergy to all forms of cruelty and stupidity, is as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. (Yes, Network is in the mix of the film’s influence, as are Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and Little Murders.) After losing his job, he takes his recent terminal- brain-cancer diagnosis on the road Suicide is seriously considered, but a murderous path takes precedence, as he opts instead to team up with exuberantly morbid teenager Roxie (Tara Lynne Barr, perfectly matched with Murray), to become “platonic spree killers.” Frank and Roxie are soul mates of a sort (with muted sexual chemistry recalling the hit man and his pre-teen protégé in Luc Besson’s The Professional), sharing a disgust for everything that’s rancid about contemporary America, and their tour-de-force hate rants are among the film’s highlights.

With the possible exception of Alice Cooper, nobody escapes from Goldthwait’s vitriol unscathed, the audience included, who are kept in suspense wondering how long it’ll be before they’re indicted in one of Frank or Roxie’s diatribes—underlining that we’re all potentially part of the problem.

God Bless America is designed to piss people off, across a wide spectrum: from right-wing media types, ultraconservative political zealots, and reality TV fans, to people who high-five, talk during movies, park badly, or just have no sense of humor—not to mention Woody Allen and Diablo Cody. As for the inevitable backlash to his hardcore skewering, Goldthwait isn’t concerned: “I don’t really care if the racist idiot Tea Party members, irrelevant Westboro Baptists, or freaky Bible-beaters don’t like this movie. They shouldn’t—I’m pointing out that they are part of what’s wrong with American culture today. I hope they hate it. I don’t hope anyone kills any of them, but I hold fast to my belief that if anyone wants to ban violent works of fiction they should start with the Bible.”

For all its aggression, God Bless America is as touching as it is funny—and above all, as one of the most biting cinematic depictions ever made about the decline of contemporary American civilization, it’s highly relevant. But on a basic level, it’s also entertainment in its purest form, as enjoyable to watch as it surely was to create.

“Making movies should be fun,” Goldthwait says. “There’s no reason you can’t tell the stories you want and have a good time doing it. And it starts with not taking yourself too seriously . . . I never really worry about people taking me seriously. I think directors who demand to be taken seriously are usually the ones who have the least to say.”

Goldthwait has been engaged in a career-long love/hate relationship with stand-up (a recent Showtime special, You Don’t Look the Same Either, proves he still has some fire in him), but he and filmmaking are a perfect match, with each film improving on and going further than the last. His unconventional form of storytelling with twisted grace, whether he likes it or not, deserves laughter and serious consideration in equal measure.

© 2012 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center

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