Live from Toronto Film Festival: Wednesday 9.14.11

Given the size of the Toronto Film Festival and the goals I have when I'm here (primarily to see movies that will be released so I can bank reviews for later - and scout movies for the film series that I program), it's rare that I have the opportunity to discover something small, weird and exciting.

But I did last night. God bless Bobcat Goldthwait - his fourth film, God Bless America, may turn out to be my favorite viewing experience of the festival. Outrageous, bitter and wildly, inappropriately funny, God Bless America had me roaring at the story of a newly minted spree killer, who decides to eliminate all of what he sees as the worst of American popular culture, beginning with a spoiled rich brat who's the star of a reality show and ending up on the stage of an American Idol-doppelganger with an AK47.

Played by Joel Murray, the film's central character, Frank, is an average guy from Syracuse, who tells his cubicle-mate at work that he doesn't find morning radio amusing because "I'm not afraid of foreign people or people with vaginas." Goldthwait summarizes his film in a line of Frank's early on: "Why have a civilization if we're no longer interested in being civil?"

Goldthwait's previous two films also specialized in the viciously funny: the horrifyingly squirmy comedy Sleeping Dogs Lie, and equally unholy and painfully laugh-provoking World's Greatest Dad. Hopefully, God Bless America will find a wider audience than the previous two, which barely got released. Goldthwait's films have teeth and aren't for everyone, but there's definitely an audience that shares his sense of outrage about just how low our lowest common denominator has fallen. God Bless America is Goldthwait's most snarlingly subversive comedy yet.

I saw four other films on Wednesday, all much closer to the mainstream - although Jim Field Smith's Butter may raise a few hackles on the right when it's released next year. It's a sharp-edged comedy about a hard-driving Iowa woman (Jennifer Garner), whose husband is the long-standing Iowa state butter-carving champion. When he is forced to retire (after 15 consecutive wins, including carving a scene from Schindler's List in butter), his wife - an uptight housewife whose crazed, fixed gaze may bring Michele Bachmann to mind for some - decides she is going to enter herself, to keep the title in the family. A terrific cast includes Ty Burrell as her husband, Yara Shahidi as a black child who becomes her competitor, and Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone as her foster parents. It's an unexpected crowd pleaser, one that finds the weirdness of Midwestern state-fair culture without making Midwesterners - as much as this particularly hateful woman - the butt of the joke.

Hysteria was also surprisingly funny. Much of the humor comes from the juxtaposition of Victorian-era British reserve - particularly about sex - and the subject matter: hysteria, what was once a common diagnosis for anything that ailed a woman.

This commentary continues on my website.