Bobcat Goldthwait remembers when he heard about Bubba Smith’s death last fall. The comic admits he didn’t stay in touch with his fellow Police Academy alums, save Tim Kazurinsky, aka the diminutive Sweetchuck. So, he learned of his onetime co-star’s demise the classy way: by numerous news outlets calling him for soundbites.
As he was talking about Smith’s warmth, intelligence and storytelling prowess, Goldthwait came to a realization: “I thought, ‘Man, I hope when I die they don’t call Guttenberg first.’”
At the very least he’s been adding to his future obit. After three films this shouldn’t be news but still is: Bobcat Goldthwait—the star of ‘80s comedies he admits were terrible; the early ‘90s talk show saboteur who set fire to Jay Leno’s couch; the spastic comic who was (unfairly) lumped in with Andrew “Dice” Clay et al—has been reborn as a filmmaker, and a good one. Sleeping Dogs Lie (originally called Stay), which shocked Sundance in 2006, is a movie about a woman who blows her dog, as well as a trenchant exploration into the impossibility of true romantic intimacy. World’s Greatest Dad, with Robin Williams exploiting his awful son’s death for fame, is similarly sage. (He also directed 1991’s proto-Bad Santa alkie comedy Shakes the Clown, which isn’t without merit. It even inspired the R.E.M. song “Binky the Doormat.”)
God Bless America, his latest, was born when he and his wife caught a commercial for a ringtone featuring a farting elephant. “I just looked at my wife and said, ‘Okay, let’s get some guns.’”
Or at least some cameras. In America, a middle-aged loner named Frank (Joel Murray) hits the road with teenage girl Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) to assassinate the country’s most obnoxious: reality TV stars, far-right pundits, people who use cell phones in movie theaters. (Best known as pants-wetting Freddy Rumsen on Mad Men, Murray is not only brother to Bill, but Goldthwait’s friend and co-star in One Crazy Summer, the one old film of Goldthwait’s for which he has “nothing but love.”)
Goldthwait wrote the script as a Christmas present for his wife. The first draft was 187 pages—“more a manifesto than a screenplay,” he says. Eighty pages were gutted. “That's why the Jersey Shore cast doesn’t get killed.”
Not that it’s an autobiography. “I’m not so angry,” he claims. “My wife says I’m Frank and Joel [Murray] says I’m Frank. But I don’t think I’m Frank. Frank is lonely and I have a lot of friends. But I agree with Frank on a lot of things. I certainly think we’re hostile. We’re a nasty culture. Frank just wants people to act nice. And I do, too.”
During our chat, Goldthwait is prone to the same kinds of incensed monologues that Frank delivers, which aren’t very funny. That’s intentional. “He does occasionally say funny stuff. But I wanted to avoid him saying one zinger after another. I don’t like those comedies, where everyone talks in punchlines.” Unlike Frank, Goldthwait is warm and friendly, usually grinning or chuckling as he rants, which he does in a soft voice. (No, for the last time, people, in real life Goldthwait doesn’t talk like a malfunctioning Grover from Sesame Street, the voice and persona he retired years ago. No one has ever naturally talked like that ever.)
Though he’s made a film that preaches tolerance while its leads murder people, Goldthwait insists it’s a “violent movie about kindness.” His protagonists shouldn’t be admired. “Frank isn’t a good man. He’s killing people,” he says. “All the people in my movies are flawed, but I want people to empathize with them. I don’t want them to sympathize with them.”
Still, he’s a little bit Frank. “Do you text in a movie theater? I hate you so much that I think it’s funny if I’m watching a movie where you get shot.”
If America is, as some have suggested (mostly sight-unseen), a “snuff film for liberals,” Goldthwait insists it’s at least complicated. “A lot of vigilante movies, what they do is have a gratuitous rape scene, and then the good guy gets real mad, and then he kills those people,” he explains. “The whole time they’re thinking they’re good people, that they aren’t just getting their rocks off watching people get killed or someone get raped.”
He says America is different. “The people [Frank and Roxy] kill aren’t even people. They’re just examples of bad behavior.” Still, he wants the killings to make the audience feel uncomfortable. “You shouldn’t be OK with it. It should be weird. That’s part of the comedy.
“It’s not about killing people who disagree with you,” he says. “Frank just wants people to act nice. Roxy wants to kill everybody.”
Goldthwait also cites as inspiration the Tea Party, particularly a popular sign that read “We came unarmed ... this time.” “That was really the germ of this movie,” he explains. “It’s like, ‘I see your crazy and I raise you.’”
The fact that Frank and Roxy assassinate a far-right commentator has predictably drawn the ire of the far-right. Last fall, the Breitbart site Big Hollywood ran one of their fire-stoking posts about America. Goldthwait had taken out a scene where Roxy launches into an anti-right diatribe before shooting the Bill O’Reilly-type. “I was trying to be fair and balanced,” he jokes. After reading the Big Hollywood piece, plus the reams of name-calling commenters, he reinserted the scene.
“There are some things that Bill O’Reilly says that I agree with,” he confesses. “He opposes the death penalty, and I do, too. But he has no interest in change. He has no interest in us coming together as a country, coming up with real solutions.”
His own conservative friends have liked America, he says. One even loved it. “When all is said and done, there are plenty of decent conservatives who want people to act right.”
Though he says he’s eternally “a couple months away from doing a boat show with David Hasselhoff,” right now Goldthwait has a good thing going: The proliferation of inexpensive but good equipment means he can make movies on the cheap, without much interference. (He still does stand-up, albeit no longer with The Voice.) He writes scores of screenplays: he wrote five in between production on Dad and America. He needs more money than usual for his major dream project: a movie of the 1975 Kinks album Schoolboys in Disgrace. “I’m never giving up on it. I know I’m making it,” he says. “But I have to make it in a way where Ray [Davies] isn’t disappointed in me.”
In case you’re asking: no, he probably won’t be in the threatened Police Academy reboot. “I don’t think the producers like me enough to get me back,” he jokes. “I’ve been saying that they’re going to do what did with the 21 Jump Street movie: They’re going to make it a comedy this time.”
The two head out on a cross-country killing spree, taking pot-shots at Tea Party activists, a Bill O’Reilly clone and—most gratifyingly—people who talk during movies.
When it comes to vigilante justice, the right gets all the fun. While Paul Kersey and Dirty Harry placate conservative wet dreams about shooting first and never asking questions, the left makes somber killjoys like "The Ox-Bow Incident" and "In the Bedroom."
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Matt Damon delivers in "The Martian"