Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Film Appreciation - Well, it ain't Ozzie and Harriet

Film Appreciation looks back at the salad days as Cody Hamman discusses the Coen brothers' 1987 comedy Raising Arizona.

H.I. McDonough (call him Hi) met his little desert flower Ed (short for Edwina) at the county lock-up in Tempe, AZ. Hi is a recidivist, also known by the bonehead name of "repeat offender", constantly getting arrested for robbing convenience stores. He uses a gun as part of his robberies, but he never uses live ammo, and it's not armed robbery if the gun ain't loaded. Ed is a police officer working at the county lock-up, snapping mugshots and taking fingerprints as Hi is booked into his stays that range from eight to twenty months.

The first time Hi sees Ed, he flirts with her. The second time, he consoles her as she cries over being left by her fiance. The third time, she takes his fingerprints and he puts a ring on her finger. Don't worry, he paid for it. After he serves his time, he walks in as a free man and officially proposes. Hi and Ed get married, get themselves a trailer home, and Hi gets a prison-like job drilling holes in sheet metal. It's a good life, but then the roof caves in - they want to start a family, but they find that Ed is barren, her insides a rocky place where his seed could find no purchase, and they can't adopt with Hi's criminal record.

With his life full of stress, Hi catches himself driving past convenience stores that aren't on the way home... A solution to Hi and Ed's problem arises when they see the news that Nathan Arizona, owner of the Unpainted Arizona furniture chain, and his wife Florence have hit the fertility pill jackpot, resulting in the birth of quints. Thinking it unfair that some should have so many when others have so few, and figuring the Arizonas now have more than they can handle, Hi and Ed decide to take one of the babies for their own... And, as you might imagine, things get very complicated for them from there.

Nicolas Cage stars as Hi, and as far as I'm concerned, this is the performance of his career. He will always be H.I. McDonough to me. It's amazing that he was only twenty-three when he was in this film, it feels very strange that I'm already several years older than Hi. Holly Hunter is great and very appealing as Ed, and also reveals that she has a lovely singing voice in a scene where she sings the disturbing folk song "The Willow Garden" to comfort the baby.

John Goodman and William Forsythe have hilarious roles as convict pals of Hi's, brothers Gale and Evelle Snoat, the finest pair that's ever broke and entered, who show up at Hi and Ed's home looking for a place to stay after making a screaming, muddy escape from prison. Or, as they put it, they released themselves on their own recognizance after finding that the institution had nothing left to offer them. They end up finding out how hard it is to take care of a baby during a rather inept crime spree. With a scene where Evelle has an elderly cashier lie on the floor and count up to a certain number, it was this film and an explanation from my grandmother that introduced me to the concept of using "Mississippi" to count seconds when I was a kid.

Sam McMurray and Frances McDormand make a fantastic appearance as Glen and Dot, a couple with a passel of wild kids who visit to meet the baby, Glen making bad jokes nonstop and Dot advising Hi and Ed how to take care of their new child while her own kids are out-of-control brats. Dot says that it's especially important that the baby get its "diptet" shot, lest he develop lockjaw and night vision. I actually didn't get my full set of childhood vaccinations because I had a horrible reaction to my first "diptet". While I can do without the lockjaw, I am disappointed to not have night vision.

T.J. Kuhn has some awesome lines as Nathan Arizona, it's him that I find myself quoting most often. Randall "Tex" Cobb plays bounty hunter Leonard Smalls and has some memorable moments, particularly the final confrontation. Smalls is straight out of Hi's nightmares, and to see Hi so terrified of a biker who is said to have "all the powers of Hell at his command" and even leaves a trail of flame behind his motorcycle tires in one shot is especially amusing now that Nicolas Cage has gone on to be the cinematic Ghost Rider.

The film is very well directed and shot, the Coens aided by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, as they were on their debut Blood Simple. Like in Blood Simple, there are some Sam Raimi-esque touches seen in some of the camera movement. The most Raimi moment is when Florence Arizona discovers that she's missing a baby. The camera starts at the end of the Arizona's driveway, speeds across the yard, over a tricycle, over a car, over a water fountain, up the ladder that Hi left leading to the nursery room window, into the nursery room, and ends on a close-up of Florence's screaming face.

One of the most memorable sequences in the film comes when the stress finally gets to be too much for Hi and he breaks down and goes through with a convenience store robbery. "I'll be taking these Huggies and whatever cash you got." The robbery doesn't go smoothly, leading to an extended chase sequence, primarily a foot chase down streets, across yards, over fences, through homes and stores, and involving cops, innocent bystanders, a pack of dogs, and an overzealous teenage clerk.

The six minute chase sequence and the use of handheld camera within might have been an inspiration for a more serious foot chase in the 1991 action film Point Break. A scene later in the film, an awesomely goofy fight between Nicolas Cage and John Goodman in the cramped space of the trailer home, inspired a serious trailer home battle between Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill Volume 2.

The music score, by Coen regular Carter Burwell, is also very memorable. The banjo, whistling, and yodeling in particular will get stuck in your head forever.

After Blood Simple, a dark story full of slimy and questionable characters, the Coen brothers wanted to make their second film completely different, something with a light, fun tone and likeable, sympathetic characters. The result may be the Coens' most across-the-board accessible film. It's not as strange as some of their later films, without the potentially off-putting non-traditional elements of some, minus the vulgarity of another of their comedy classics, The Big Lebowski. It's a film that can be watched and enjoyed with friends and multiple generations of family. I watched it on cable with my grandmother many times throughout my childhood. I liked it a lot then, and to this day I find it to be one of the most enjoyable, funny films there is. This movie cracks me up, with endlessly quotable quirky dialogue and great performances.

1 comment:

  1. Such a good movie. The plot, the camera work and the acting add up to a film wich can be enjoyed by film lovers and their families alike, just like you said.