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Inducing that audience identification seems to be more important to Goldthwait than getting laughs. "I'm not interested in making comedies that are punchline driven," he says, and in fact, his comic style has always been more stunt-oriented than joke-centered. "My initial act was trying to make fun of stand-up—this guy crying on stage reading a Dear John letter, and then, like, 'Good night!'" The point, he says, was to subvert the comedy audience's expectations, to provoke an unexpected emotional reaction. Similarly, Goldthwait's movies tend to start with an outrageous one-liner premise based on protagonists doing the unthinkable—experimenting with bestiality, exploiting the death of a child, murdering reality-TV stars simply because they're annoying—who, over the course of the film, are humiliated and humbled by the merciless worlds they live in, putting the viewer in the uncomfortable spot of feeling badly for the bad people.
America stems from Goldthwait's personal experience in a number of ways. "The germ," as he puts it, came from catching a marathon of MTV's My Super Sweet 16 while in a hotel in London. "I was like, 'Holy shit, this is really what they think [Americans are] all like.'" And the film's subplot involving a mentally disabled talent-show reject was based on the filmmaker's time at Jimmy Kimmel Live, and his mixed feelings about building segments around the culture's designated objects of ridicule, like American Idol castoff William Hung.
He apologizes for the film's "dated" cultural references—he says he tuned out of popular culture after writing the script, which is one of half a dozen he has completed in the three years since Dad's release. "The movie is a little bit me getting old," he admits. "'Get off my lawn, you kids!' But I insist I'm not Frank. Joel says I'm Frank; my wife says I'm Frank. But I think I'm much happier. And I'm not homicidal."
Frank's killing spree might be an exaggeration of Goldthwait's own frustrations, but it happens against the backdrop of a recognizably real world. The movie is both an over-the-top farce and an eerily accurate time capsule; the material comprising the montages of Frank's compulsive channel surfing—from scatological reality-show antics to news reports on "God hates fags"–chanting protesters and conservative talk-show hosts comparing Obama to Hitler—was taken directly from real life. "We just reshot things we saw and heard," Goldthwait says. "All the stuff that the political [pundits] are saying are just paraphrased quotes from people like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck."
Predictably, America has been attacked, sight unseen, by what Goldthwait terms as the "right-wing fringe, saying that this is a leftist snuff porno." He's proud to represent the opposite fringe. "Michael Moore got booed at the Oscars, so how liberal is Hollywood? Honestly, it's not liberal enough for me!"
Promoting World's Greatest Dad, Goldthwait promised that his next film would complete what he called his "boo-hoo trilogy." The planned third movie, Easter Dad, concerned a struggling screenwriter who jokingly pitches a studio on a Santa Clause–esque franchise about "the true meaning of Easter"—and then, to his dismay, is actually hired to write it. But Goldthwait decided to scrap the script. "It came off as me saying, 'My life is hard, boo-hoo,' and my life isn't hard—it's pretty awesome. So I lost my energy to make [it]. It was also a really aggressive fuck-you to Hollywood, and I don't feel that—because I don't participate in it, so I don't care."
Goldthwait avoids "participating" in the industry by keeping his films extremely low budget. Darko, he says, "seem to like what I do, and I do them very small, so it's not a big roll of the dice." That said, on America, he forced his financier's hand just a bit. To explain, he pulls down his cotton Henley to show me a full-color tattoo on his left pec of the logo for Hamm's beer—Darko exec Ted Hamm's family business. "I came in and showed him this new tattoo, and I go, 'Hey, are we gonna do this?' Clearly the movie was on the bubble, because they didn't laugh—they just got really quiet. And I go, 'Plenty of room for Fox Searchlight on [the other] breast!'"
Low risk nets low reward: Unable to make a living making his movies, Goldthwait relies on stand-up to pay the bills. No one is more surprised than he is that there's still an audience for the Bobcat Goldthwait of high-pitched screech and thinning mullet. "When I play places, the folks who come have this expectation of seeing this thing—I blame Vince Neil and Bret Michaels. People think I should have hair extensions and a girdle." But in recent years, Goldthwait has made a conscious decision to jettison his familiar persona. "I decided to just go onstage as myself," he says. "And I did lose work. But I had to do it because it was so horrible to do this act that meant nothing to me anymore."