Tara Lynn Barr and Joel Murray in the movie "God Bless America." (Magnolia Pictures, Magnolia…)
At times"God Bless America"feels more like an assault weapon than a movie, possibly an AK-47. This funny, sick twist of social satire is certainly locked and loaded, even if its aim is sometimes off.
The central character is Frank (Joel Murray), a vigilante of virtue who targets the irritants of modern times — reality TV stars, bratty teens, people who check cellphones in movies and a judge on a talent show who sounds a lot like Simon Cowell.
The commentary that runs through Frank's head is accompanied by a ton of blood and guts splattered all over the place because, frankly, writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait has a lot he wants to get off his chest. The indie filmmaker, who began his career as a comic, primarily uses "God Bless America" to launch a scattershot screed about how cruel and rude the world has become. Unfortunately, his argument is undercut to some degree as his protagonists increasingly sound like the TV pundits he mocks.
Despite the viscera overload, there are vicarious thrills to be had. Frank is a middle-aged, middle-class guy with a paunch having a meltdown that is a variation on Michael Douglas' character in "Falling Down." He's unhappily divorced, newly fired and owns a gun. It doesn't help his already dark mood that the TV offers up an endless parade of human idiocy and that the baby next door won't stop crying.
In what can seem like loose riffs lifted from other, better, angry films, Frank decides he's not going to take it anymore a la Howard Beale in"Network."Instead of yelling about it, he buys more guns. First up for target practice is Chloe (Maddie Hasson), a high school cheerleader/reality TV star over-indulged by her rich parents and completely ungrateful. What Frank doesn't count on is that sniping at Chloe will win him a fan. Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), one of Chloe's classmates, is at least as peeved by her existence as Frank is and, besides, the idea of stalking and shooting is far more exciting than class.
Thus begins a meandering debate between the pair on social ills accompanied by a Bonnie-and-Clyde-styled killing spree to set things right. A trip to a thrift store nets a beret for Roxy and a fedora for Frank to complete the effect. Some of the murders are Sam Peckinpah-graphic, but others look as if the production ran low on money for effects. But somehow it fits Frank, who seems to be doing everything on the fly. Murray — a veteran character actor who has played around the edges of many films ("The Artist," most recently) — is comfortable center stage.
As Roxy and Frank travel the country, their conversations become the place where attempts are made to justify the mayhem and murder, and this is where the thinking gets a little thin. It helps that Murray and Barr play the outrageous completely straight. As sensei and warrior in training, they make a good, if bizarre, match. The few times the film moves beyond farce to touch some real emotions — like Roxy's typical teenage worry that she's not very pretty or that her parents don't understand her — prove surprisingly nice.
The director, who started in stand-up and occasionally still dips back into that, has grown more visually accomplished since his first feature, 1991's "Shakes the Clown." But "God Bless America's" righteous wrath doesn't measure up to the clever comic edge of his earlier work — whether it was Shakes going undercover as a mime to figure out who framed him for murder or Robin Williams trying to get a late handle on adulthood in 2009's "World's Greatest Dad."
Goldthwait's strength — whether on stage or behind the camera — is his ability to tap into that "tears of a clown" sensibility that is as human and forgiving of foibles as it is stingingly funny. He does that again in "God Bless America" but without quite as much grace.