Writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait mimics the moronic viciousness of such shows with a bitter accuracy that comes from years spent in the TV industry. His made-up versions have names like Num Nutz and Tuff Girlz (where one enraged girl plucks a used tampon from between her legs and flings it at a rival.) A slow-witted contestant on a programme called American Superstarz (no prizes for guessing which show that's based on) gets ripped to pieces by a heartless panel, only to then become an overnight sensation (his dog-howl version of Do You Know Where You're Going To reverberates throughout the film, posing a question no one can answer.) Frank is not so lucky. Due to a misunderstanding with a female colleague that will bring most male viewers out in a sympathetic sweat, he loses his job, and then learns from a doctor distracted by a constantly whirring mobile phone that he might have an inoperable tumour.
Determined that, if he's going down, it won't be alone, Frank takes it into his head to murder the bratty teen star of a Sweet Super 16-style show. While dispatching her, he encounters a rather more sympathetic teen, 16-year-old misfit Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr,) and together they embark on a killing spree, targeting the rude and uncouth and weeding out intolerance with a bullet.
The ensuing mayhem is like a strange blend of Taxi Driver and The Office, and indeed God Bless America explicitly references the former in several ways. There's the moody use of slow-motion and overhead shots. For much of the time Frank drives a car the same shade of yellow as a New York cab. Like Travis Bickle, he takes up with an underage girl. And a scene where Frank buys guns and ammo from an unsavoury dealer with a sideline in drugs replicates a near-identical moment in Scorcese's masterpiece.
But Taxi Driver provides some critical perspective upon its protagonist; God Bless America doesn't. The gun-buying scene is a case in point. In Goldthwait's film, the effect is straightforward: Frank merely looks with disgust at the arms dealer, mentally adding him to his hit list. In Taxi Driver, when the dealer offers Bickle uppers and downers, it tarnishes the vigilante by association, especially as his refusal isn't all that convincing.
The relationship with Roxy doesn't really work either. Although the script is at pains to stress that it's strictly platonic, she comes across as a wish fulfilment figure, sharing Frank's attitudes, getting his cultural references, paying attention when he teaches her how to shoot. So much so, you can't help wondering whether she might be a figment of the imagination brought on by his tumour (if not in the finished film, then perhaps in an earlier draft of the screenplay.)
Okay, so it isn't Taxi Driver. But God Bless America is still compulsively watchable and highly entertaining. This is cinema that makes you sit up and take notice. The script bristles with on-the-nose social commentary, the scenes of slaughter are presented in a chillingly casual, dissociative light, even the smallest roles are memorable and beautifully nuanced, and Bradley Stonesifer's cinematography looks expensive in a manner that belies the film's small budget. Joel Murray brings a Kapra-esque quality to Frank, a gentleness and a stuttering, Jimmy Stewartish way with his set-piece speeches, that lends him enormous dignity and pathos. As for Goldthwait, he's clearly a major voice that needs to be heard. Lots of people will love this movie, and those who don't will love talking about it.