Bobcat Goldthwait, in almost every possible fashion, belongs on the list of those creatures who could only have come of celebrity age in the '80s, along with Emmanuel Lewis, Grace Jones, and Dr. Ruth. When the highlight of your popularity is that you were the star of the second through fourth Police Academy movies, suffice it to say, you never had your own lunch box. (Though he did make it into a comic book.) If he's remembered for anything, it's his screeching, brain-devouring voice, a scream that appeared to be the result of Goldthwait imagining what the Muppets' Animal would be like on heroin. There'd be no reason to think of him now—he's not even at the level where he shows up on Celebrity Apprentice—except for one small fact: He's among the most interesting independent filmmakers working in America right now.
This like learning that Jackee is a secret poet laureate, or Tawny Kitaen is the author of a high-level doctoral dissertation that aims to calculate the exact value of pi—but it's true: I'm not sure there's any other filmmaker doing what Bobcat Goldthwait is doing right now, and has been doing for the last six years. This is different from saying that Goldthwait is the most accomplished independent filmmaker; quite far from it, alas. But I wouldn't miss one of his movies, especially God Bless America, his newest, which opens Friday, for the world. He's operating on a different level than everyone else.
Goldthwait directed one film back during his initial run of fame, Shakes the Clown, an essentially unwatchable "comedy" that justifiably ended his filmmaking career for about a decade. He spent most of that time doing voiceovers for cartoons (if you were wondering why everyone who was a kid during the '90s is so screwed up now, that's why), making occasional TV guest appearances, and hanging out with celebrity friends as disparate as Kurt Cobain (he opened for Nirvana on the "In Utero" tour), Quentin Tarantino, and Robin Williams. His directorial resurgence appears to have been a result of a relationship with Jimmy Kimmel; he directed several episodes of The Man Show and Crank Yankers, along with the mean-but-undeniably-funny Windy City Heat project. This led to Goldthwait's three auteur projects, all of which, frankly, are insane.
The first was called Sleeping Dogs Lie, which stars Melinda Page Hamilton (most famously the late Anna Draper on Mad Men) and had the most ridiculous premise imaginable: A woman falls in love and confesses to her fiancé that, back in college, as she put it: "I blew my dog." In Goldthwait's hands, this ridiculous premise turned into a surprisingly intelligent contemplation of relationships, of trust, of what it really means to "accept" your partner's past. (I always preferred the film's original title: Stay.)
Next came World's Greatest Dad, which featured Robin Williams's best performance in about two decades and had yet another batshit premise. Failed-author-turned-schoolteacher Williams comes home to find his asshole son dead from autoerotic asphyxiation, covers up the death to make it look like a straight suicide, and then discovers that his son has become some sort of nationwide martyr for the bullied.
Both movies back themselves into a conceptual corner at the very beginning and spend the rest of their running time trying to work themselves out. The movies are less offensive than they are gonzo; Goldthwait essentially asks us to side with a woman who blew her dog and a hack plagiarist who benefits from the death of his own son ... from the very first frame. And they're sincere! They're not big middle fingers to the audience. Goldthwait believes in his movies, and he only wants to shock you with the premise, not the execution. Both films seem to exist in a universe in which filmmakers do not care a lick whether or not anyone watches their movies, or likes their characters, or is repulsed by their very ideas. They are, in the purest sense, independent.
I don't like Goldthwait's newest film, God Bless America, as much as those two, but it's just as fiercely devoted to its own vision. It stars Joel Murray (Freddy Rumsen from Mad Men, and Bill's brother) as a sad-sack angry loner who learns he is dying of a brain tumor, teams up with a sullen, violent teenage girl, and decides, essentially, to kill everyone on his television. The movie takes the form of a Natural Born Killers/Bonnie & Clyde-style road movie—though both killers take pains to point out that they're "platonic spree-killers"—but it's really just an excuse for Goldthwait to use the two characters as mouthpieces to vent his spleen about our rotting culture.
Our two "heroes" have no ideology or ethos: They just kill people who annoy them. This would be more of a problem if these annoyances didn't consistently have a cathartic kick for the audience. I might have lost track, but our murderous duo either kills, lambastes, or does both to the following people: anyone involved with reality television, viral Internet sensations, cable television hosts, people who drink energy drinks, people who high five, Glee ("it ruined Rocky Horror forever"), Diablo Cody ("The only stripper who suffers from too much self-esteem"), Woody Allen and his personal life, people who take up two parking spots, and people who say "Namaste" in casual conversation. I'll confess: When they shot a group of teenagers who are texting and talking in a movie theater (insanely, to the strains of Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet"), I found it difficult not to cheer.
Goldthwait is not a subtle, or even patient, filmmaker: He never lets anyone in the movie, including his protagonists, be much more than cartoons. It's a shame, because there's always been something open-hearted about Goldthwait's movies. In this one, he's less sincere, more reactionary, more ranty. (I find it difficult to believe any teenager, no matter how homicidally inclined, would ever spend five minutes extolling the historic virtues of Alice Cooper.)
He's also, to put it nicely, not a particularly skilled filmmaker. He still has the point-and-shoot visual technique of Kevin Smith, and he tends to overplay musical cues, letting pop songs do the emotional work for him. The movie is, all told, a series of speeches, and how much you enjoy it likely coincides with how much you agree with Bobcat Goldthwait on American celebrity culture. ("How much you agree with Bobcat Goldthwait." Now there's a phrase you didn't imagine coming across today.)
But it wouldn't surprise me if you agreed with him a lot. I wish it weren't so clunky; I wish Goldthwait were evolving as a stylist; I wish it were as thematically daring as his last two films. But I still can't deny the fundamental fact: This is exactly the movie its creator wanted to make, how he wanted to make it. His films stubbornly refuse to adhere to a single movie convention, let alone make notice of the greater marketplace whatsoever. They belong, solely, almost profoundly, to Goldthwait himself. How many filmmakers can say that?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.