Friday, March 28, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: Raising Arizona (1987)

Raising Arizona (1987)
Directed by:   Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (H.I. McDunnough), Holly Hunter (Edwina 'Ed' McDunnough), Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona), John Goodman (Gale Snoats), William Forsythe (Evelle Snoats), Sam McMurray (Glen), Frances McDormand (Dot), Randall 'Tex' Cobb (Leonard Smalls).

I have probably seen Raising Arizona more times than other movie I don’t like very much. The first time was shortly after I “discovered” the Coen brothers at the age of 15 with Fargo – and fell in love, so I wanted to see their other work. Raising Arizona was on TV late one night, so I stayed up and watched it – and honestly, that first time through, I hated it. A few years later, when I was talking to a friend about how much I loved O Brother, Where Art Thou? – my friend expressed confusion. To him, O Brother was more similar to Raising Arizona than any of the Coens other films, and he knew I hated that one, so he wondered why I liked the more recent film. This got me thinking that perhaps it was simply the fact that Raising Arizona was the first real Coen “farce” I saw that made me hate the first time through. Since I had gotten used their style – and grew to love it – watching other Coen comedies like The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, perhaps another look was order. So I watched it again – this time on good old VHS – and although I liked it slightly more than the first time, I still didn’t think much of it. About five years later, I came across the DVD of Raising Arizona in one of those $5 Wal Mart bins. It was the only Coen movie I didn’t own, so I figured what the hell and bought it. Once again, that nagging suspicion bothered me – perhaps the film is better than I remembered it. So I watched it again – liked some it, didn’t like most of it and that was that. That was probably about six years ago now, when once again, I decided to watch Raising Arizona as part of this series on the films of the Coen brothers. Once again, I hoped I would see what so many others see in Raising Arizona. Once again, I was disappointed to discover I didn’t. It’s been four times now, so I’m pretty sure if I was ever going to learn to like Raising Arizona, it would have happened by now.


The film is a farce about a not very bright criminal, H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage), who robs convenience stores, but never carries a loaded gun because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He meets Ed (Holly Hunter), a police officer, during his many arrests, and the two eventually fall in love and get married. H.I. tries to go straight – and Ed is desperate for a baby. When they find out she is barren, it is devastating. However, a rich man, Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife have just had quintuplets. The McDunnough’s feel this is unfair – so they decide to kidnap one of the kids for themselves. After all, the Arizona’s will still have four kids, and that’s more than enough for anyone, right? Things get complicated when the Snoats boys (John Goodman and William Forsythe) break out of jail, and come to their old friend H.I. for a place to stay. And when H.I. gets angry at his boss Glen (Sam McMurray) for suggesting that he and his wife (Frances McDormand) are interested in swinging. And when Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb), an insane bounty hunter, goes to the Arizona’s and tells them he can get their boy back. All of these people eventually realize who the baby the McDunnough’s have really is.

Most of my problems with the film can be traced back to the performance by its star – Nicolas Cage. Unlike many, I’m not a Cage hater – I actually think I’m one of his biggest supporters. While it’s true that few actors of his stature have made as many horrible movies as Cage has, it’s also true that when he gets the right role, there are few actors better. Fans may have to sit through any number of movies like Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, etc. but once every few years they are rewarded by a Cage performance as singular and brilliant as Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Cage’s performance in Raising Arizona is almost undoubtedly the one the Coen Brothers wanted him to give. His performance sets the comedic tone of the whole film, and the rest of the cast is just trying to keep up. The performance bugged me however because I never for a minute truly believed it. Cage is gifted at going over the top – and that is essentially what he does here for the entire runtime – but his performance is so cartoonish that I never truly bought into the character. Holly Hunter is much better – she is only slightly more subtle than Cage is, but it makes all the difference in the world. She is hilarious at times – but it almost seems like she exists in a different world than the rest of the cast. Goodman (in his first of many Coen brother films) and Forsythe try to match Cage’s zaniness – and Goodman in particular comes close during an extended fight sequence between the two, which has some great moments in it, yet for me didn’t quite work because every time the scene started to work, there was more of Cage’s mugging to distract from the film. As Leonard Smalls, Randall “Tex” Cobb – a former boxer and wrestler – shows why his acting career never really took off. He is awful and one note. The best performances may well be by McMurray and McDormand as well as Trey Wilson. These three know they are in a farce, but don’t go so wildly over the top that you can never believe them.

There are things I like about Raising Arizona. It has one of my favorite movie quotes of all time when the Snoats go to rob a bank and tell everyone to freeze and get on the ground, only to have one old man respond “Well, which is it, young feller? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? Mean to say, if'n I freeze, I can't rightly drop. And if'n I drop, I'm a-gonna be in motion.” And I appreciated the very Coen like ending of the movie – H.I. and Ed may not quite be punished for their sins like many a Coen character, but they don’t get a happy ending either – which is appropriate.

But, for me, the whole movie is like that fight sequence between Cage and Goodman. In many ways, that fight sequence is the high point of the movie – along with H.I. stealing some diapers it’s the biggest set piece in the movie. Both of those sequences contain some brilliant work by the Coens behind the camera. And yet, every time I think the movie is about to truly take off, and be as great of a comedy as I know the Coen’s can make, there is something that grinds the movie to a halt, and stops all comic momentum. It’s usually Cage mugging, or saying something in his affected accent.

Could Raising Arizona been a better movie had the Coens toned it down a little? I think so. Reading through the memorable quotes section on IMDB for the film, I found myself laughing more while reading than I did as I watched the film. There is a reason why some love Raising Arizona – hell I’ve even seen some people call it the best film the Coens have ever made. For me though, I can just never get on its wavelength. There are moments I adore – and I like the film more than I did the first time through – but it still has to rank among the weakest Coen films for me.

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