"God Bless America" takes on a wide spectrum of what's wrong with the U.S. of A. today: bottom-feeding reality TV, vapid celebrity culture, hateful political commentators spreading disinformation, degenerating civility and other symptoms of what one character calls "a mighty empire starting to collapse."

“God Bless America” takes on a wide spectrum of what’s wrong with the U.S. of A. today: bottom-feeding reality TV, vapid celebrity culture, hateful political commentators spreading disinformation, degenerating civility and other symptoms of what one character calls “a mighty empire starting to collapse.” But while it starts out well, Bobcat Goldthwait’s black comedy struggles to maintain focus as it turns into a road trip of diminishing rewards in satirical and narrative terms. Magnet’s Toronto pickup could benefit from pushing the controversy button on the talkshow circuit and elsewhere, though word of mouth is likely to be middling at best.

Forty-five-year-old Syracuse resident Frank (Joel Murray) is depressed, and no wonder: He’s an insomniac and suffers from migraines; his ex-wife (Melinda Page Hamilton) is about to get happily remarried; and their only child, Ava (Mackenzie Brooke Smith), is a monster brat who refuses to see him. His insufferable younger neighbors keep up a “constant cacophony of stupidity” heard through thin walls, their endlessly squalling baby adding to the din.

Pic starts amusingly with sleepless Frank waxing bilious on these and other torments in voiceover. When he tries to tranquilize himself with some televised entertainment, he’s barraged by what he likens to ancient Rome’s bloodthirsty spectacles — freakshows pandering to the public’s worst instincts. Among them are parodies of “Jackass,” “American Idol,” Fox TV-type right-wing hysterics (Regan Burns as pundit Michael Fuller), et al.

After delivering an extended rant about all this to a callow co-worker, Frank is fired from his job of 11 years and later learns he has probably terminal brain cancer. In despair, he plans suicide, but instead opts to first make a statement by offing Chloe (Maddie Hasson), a spoiled rich girl famous for a viral video depicting her tantrum upon receiving the wrong luxury car for her 16th birthday. This assassination is witnessed by fellow teen Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who then forces herself on the initially reluctant Frank as Bonnie to his Clyde. “With so many people in the world who should be taking a big dirt nap, why stop now?” she urges him.

Goldthwait’s outrage is earnest, his dialogue often funny, but too often “God Bless America” degenerates into simply using Frank and Roxy to mouth laundry lists of what’s cool and what’s not. One such rant against Diablo Cody fails to deflect the charge that Roxy is just like Ellen Page’s Juno — an artificially hyper-precocious teenage smartmouth who’s more annoying than helpful to the film’s agenda.

Never finding a real narrative spine after its first act, and continuing to mock over-easy targets rather than refining its thesis that as a nation, “We’ve lost our soul,” pic ends up a lightweight, poor man’s version of ideas from “Natural Born Killers,” “Network” and even “American Dreamz.” Its increasing aimlessness is underlined by an exceptionally slow credits crawl.

Perfs are OK, colorful if modest presentation likewise in all tech and design departments.

God Bless America

Production

A Magnet Releasing release of a Darko Entertainment presentation in association with Jerkschool Prods. Produced by Sean McKittrick, Jeff Culotta. Executive producers, Edward H. Hamm Jr., Richard Kelly. Co-producers, Sarah de Sa Rego, Jim Goldthwait, Jason Stewart. Directed, written by Bobcat Goldthwait.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Bradley Stonesifer; editors, Jason Stewart, David Hopper; music, Matt Kollar; music supervisor, Linda Cohen; production designer, Natalie Sanfilippo; set decorator, Kirk Oberholtzer; costume designer, Sara de Sa Rego; sound (Dolby Digital), Arran Murphy; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Robert C. Jackson; assistant directors, Jim Goldthwait, Joe Moore; casting, Robert McGee, Ruth Lambert. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 14, 2011. Running time: 107 MIN.

Cast

With: Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Melinda Page Hamilton, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Rich McDonald, Maddie Hasson, Larry Miller, Travis Wester, Lauren Phillips, Aris Alvarado, Regan Burns.

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