I was a big fan of Joel and Ethan Coen's first film, Blood Simple. I'm not sure if it's accurate to say that their new film, Raising Arizona, is precisely a disappointment, but it certainly isn't at all what I expected, and I didn't really like it. Raising Arizona is such a peculiar movie that I find it difficult to analyze my own feelings about it. In some sense, that itself is a sort of recommendation, since I'm a believer in trying to have unusual film experiences, but I can't help but come back to the fact that I didn't really like it.
The story is moderately peculiar, to begin with. A lower class Arizona couple discover that they can't have a baby. Adoption is out, as the husband is a five or six time loser, specializing in robbing convenience stores with an unloaded gun. When they hear of the birth of a set of quintuplets, they set out to steal one of them for their own. Raising Arizona just starts from here, throwing in vast numbers of complicating factors and extraneous vignettes. It's safe to say that the screenplay is rather different from the run-of- the-mill Hollywood script, or any other type of script that actually gets made.
The Coen brothers (who wrote the script, and then split directing and producing chores, Joel doing the former, Ethan the latter) have taken this odd substrate and layered on further levels of weirdness. The characters are strange, the direction is unusual, the cinematography gratuitously inventive, and the overall effect more stupefying than anything else. I'm not really sure if Raising Arizona came out the way the Coen brothers intended, but it certainly doesn't work. Perhaps the plan was to create an overall atmosphere so bizarre as to carry the film on that basis alone. Unfortunately, the different elements tend to work against each other, rather than demonstrating the internal consistency necessary to carry such a plan off.
Not to say that Raising Arizona is without its merits. There are several funny moments, a nicely choreographed chase scene, and Nicholas Cage, playing the husband (known as H.I., pronounced just as you would expect), gives an excellent performance. His character is a dimwitted rube who's not very strong on honesty, but Cage makes him lovable, rather like a large, stupid dog whose misdeeds are so inept as to make you feel sorry for him. Cage's greatest achievement is that he makes H.I. seem like a real person, a feat beyond the rest of the cast. Everyone else is a caricature, and somehow Raising Arizona needed more of a foot in the real world. More realistic portrayals might have overcome the sense that the Coens view not just these characters, but the whole level of society they represent, with condecension and contempt.
Particularly unfortunate is Holly Hunter's shrill and shallow performance as the wife. If both of the leading characters had been real people, then supporting them with a cast of stick figures might have worked out. But Hunter brings very little to her part, other than a few good line readings. In particular, she doesn't show a strong enough maternal instinct to convince us of the necessity of all the random mayhem that follows. Randall Tex Cobb stands out among the supporting cast, as an extremely nasty bounty hunter. And the babies (of course) are very cute.
The cinematography, by Barry Sonnenfield, is breathtaking, yet inappropriate. In Blood Simple, every flashy camera move reinforced the scene. Here, the wild antics of the camera seem beside the point, as if they were created almost without regard for what is going on in the film. They are worth seeing simply because they're so audacious, but they add little to the film. Carter Burwell's music, on the other hand, does seem to capture some of the tone that the film strives for.
If there's one thing wrong with Raising Arizona, it's a lack of sympathy. The Coens don't seem to care about any of their characters, except as the butts of jokes. Really effective slapstick depends on the audience caring about the disaster befalling the characters, but if the filmmakers don't care about them, the audience won't, either. The Coens made Raising Arizona with too much brains, and too little heart. Blood Simple was all thought and no emotion, too, but the thriller genre is inherently more cerebral than comedy. Good comedy comes from the gut and the heart, only secondarily from the brain.
Given its immense uncertainty of tone, I'd have to rate Raising Arizona as a failure, overall. But it is a very different type of failure than the typical film. Raising Arizona is an imaginative failure, a failure caused by an attempt to do more than the filmmakers really knew how to do. That may not be the same thing as success, but it's more interesting than some films that achieve everything they set out to do. For those looking for something different than the average film, Raising Arizona is worth seeing.
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