Film Reviews

Bobcat Goldthwait Is Making Comedies in His Own Register

Bobcat Goldthwait is moving farther and farther away from Hollywood — the industry that paid him to star in three Police Academy movies and the geographical area of Los Angeles. Last week, he presented his new directorial effort, God Bless America, at a radio-station promo gig in Omaha and, a few days later, the veteran stand-up literally played in Peoria. But as he settles into a booth across from me for a late-afternoon meal, his big concern is that he and his wife are scheduled to vacate their Studio City home in the morning, and they're still packing. Their new place is "deeper into the Valley," he laughs. "As my indie career takes off, we keep going deeper and deeper!"

Goldthwait, 49, is a long way from the comedian who made a name for himself in the early '80s with a stuttering, bug-eyed, pathologically nervous persona and a screechy voice partially ripped off from Grover the Muppet, parlaying his notoriety into roles in shit movies like the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Burglar and the talking-horse flick Hot to Trot.

Goldthwait started doing stand-up in his early teens; by his mid-20s, he was already a comedy veteran. "I was in punk bands when I was a kid, and then I would do stand-up in between bands — which wasn't any different from my singing," he remembers. He was not aspiring to a career. "I'm always amazed that people are interested in comedy. I never was obsessed with comedians. When I was a little, little boy, I'd watch, like, George Carlin on Dinah Shore." Later, Goldthwait's broad character and audience-challenging acts got him lumped in with shock comics such as Andrew Dice Clay — a branding that Goldthwait vocally resisted. "[Dice] and Sam Kinison, I was like, here was this thing I did, which I thought was pretty awesome — comedy — and you guys reduced it to pro-wrestling. It's always been for me about protecting the misfits and the outcasts, not ridiculing them."

Most known for his recurring stint in the Police Academy movies, Goldthwait reached the peak of his personal fame in 1994, when, appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show and aware that the host was falling out with his show's studio, Bobcat spray-painted "Paramount Sucks" on the set in the middle of his segment. The incident caused enough of a stir that when he was shortly thereafter invited on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, he figured he was being set up to top himself. Seated between Leno and model Lauren Hutton, Goldthwait set his chair on fire. That event generated more press than anything he has ever done.

"I think that's probably because it was a super-anti-American thing," Goldthwait says today. "Everyone fantasizes how they would act if they got on [The Tonight Show]. How their life would change. How they would be nervous, but they'd be so polite and awesome and witty. So this guy comes out and just takes a crap in the punchbowl. I come out, and I just say, 'I'm not interested,' and people say: 'Woah! You're not supposed to do that!' But it was totally a point in my career where I was like, I'm so tired of this wheel you get on when you're in show business — the next script, the next pilot, are you gonna get a job that's gonna change everything? What a horrible way to live. I really did quit about seven years ago, when I started making these movies."

Goldthwait's first directorial effort was Shakes the Clown, which bombed on its 1992 release. (It has become a cult classic since, earning the support of both midnight-movie audiences and Martin Scorsese.) After spending the late ''90s voicing a stuffed rabbit on the WB sitcom Unhappily Ever After, Goldthwait went back behind the camera, directing episodes of Comedy Central fare like Chappelle's Show and The Man Show. In 2004, he took a full-time gig directing Jimmy Kimmel Live.

The "indie career" Goldthwait speaks of today began in earnest during a Kimmel hiatus seven years ago, when he and a crew he found on Craigslist shot Stay (later retitled Sleeping Dogs Lie), an emotionally resonant comedy starring Melinda Page Hamilton as a 30-something woman struggling over whether or not to reveal a secret, youthful sexual indiscretion to her new boyfriend. World's Greatest Dad, with Robin Williams as a high school teacher whose attempt to cover up the true cause of his teenage son's death spirals out of control, followed in 2009, this time funded by Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly's Darko Entertainment and released by Magnolia Pictures.

God Bless America attracted the same financing and distribution sources, but it's a significantly less commercial proposition: The film stars Joel Murray as a seemingly mild-mannered middle-age man moved by the inanity of middle-of-the-road American media culture to act on his murderous fantasies, ultimately joining forces with a dangerously precocious teenage girl (Tara Lynne Barr). Murray (brother of Bill, co-star with Goldthwait in One Crazy Summer, and probably best known lately as pants-wetting copywriter Freddy Rumsen on Mad Men) is less bankable than Robin Williams. And while the protagonists of Bobcat's two previous features mostly hurt themselves, Murray's Frank is unquestionably, as the writer/director puts it, "a bad man. The squirm factor is, if the movie works for you, you identify with him."

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Karina Longworth