Saturday, March 17, 2012


Round is funny

This post originally ran as part of The Slapstick Blog-a-Thon held at Film of the Year in September 2007. I've revised the piece slightly to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of the Coen brothers' second feature on March 13, 1987.

"I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno.
They say he's a decent man, so maybe his advisers are confused
." — H.I. McDunnough

By Edward Copeland
The frenetic slapstick nature of Raising Arizona doesn't kick in immediately. As it begins, the movie restricts most of its wackiness to wordplay. The first (and I still think the best) instance of the Coen brothers milking laughs by creating dimwitted characters that spout purple prose in thickly painted-on accents, churning out phrases that people such as these never would utter if they existed in the real world. The Coens would recycle that formula many times in films such as Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the ill-advised remake of The Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers, having Tom Hanks assume Alec Guinness' memorable turn by impersonating Colonel Sanders. However, the Coens never would go that route with as much hilarious and charming success as they did in Raising Arizona, which holds up strongly 25 years later.

What impressed me first when I saw Raising Arizona a quarter-century ago was its opening prologue, which lasts a full 11 minutes before the title even appears. It's an amazingly efficient 11 minutes as well, setting up nearly all the main characters and situations. We meet habitual convenience store robber H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage), whose parole board he frequently visits (and which frequently frees him) warns that he's only hurting himself with this "rambunctious behavior." We also meet his prison friends Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman, William Forsythe). Most importantly, we meet the police officer who takes H.I.'s mugshot and prints each time he returns to prison. The officer goes by the name Ed, short for Edwina (Holly Hunter). We get to see the attraction grow between her and H.I., especially after Ed's fiancé dumps her and, during one of his releases, H.I. finally works up the courage to ask Ed to be his bride, even though he'd previously said, referring to his chosen profession of armed robbery, that "sometimes your career comes before family." Unfortunately, family doesn't seem to be in the offing for the McDunnoughs as they learn from doctors that Ed's "insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase." That bit of narration from H.I. perfectly illustrates what I mean about the contrast between the characters' character and their speech. In Raising Arizona, the Coens excel at crafting this type of incongruous dialogue. The brothers followed up with two completely different films — Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink. After that, they tended to keep returning to a formula of dumb characters speaking flowery language in plots usually involving kidnapping and/or murder.

All that comes later. Today, we're praising when it worked in what was just their second feature. At the same time that the childless McDunnoughs are beginning married life, furniture kingpin Nathan Arizona (the late Trey Wilson) and his wife, thanks to fertility drugs, end up having quintuplets which prompts Nathan to remark is "more than they can handle." It gives Ed the idea that perhaps it would be OK if she and H.I. just took one of the five off the Arizonas' hands so she and H.I. would have a little one to raise as their own while they eased the Arizonas' burden at the same time. That's where the madness truly begins. What's remarkable about the Coens' work in Raising Arizona is that it's not just pure slapstick, but a brilliant blending of slapstick and suspense, beginning with the first outright slapstick sequence as H.I. climbs through the window of the Arizona household to try to snatch one of the infants, setting off a tense comic scene of toddlers gone wild. Set to Carter Burwell's musical score, which has more than a passing resemblance in this scene to John Williams' theme from Jaws, the babies roam, one perilously approaching the steps leading downstairs. You can't decide whether to laugh uproariously or in fright. Once the stolen baby rests comfortably in the McDunnoughs' trailer, things get really complicated.

H.I.'s prison buddies Gale and Evelle literally burst through the mud outside the prison and escape, or as Evelle puts it, they released themselves "on their own recognizance." After briefly cleaning themselves up in a gas station rest room (Dr. Strangelove fans, check the acronym that's been spray-painted on the bathroom stall's door), the brothers arrive at H.I.'s trailer, looking for a place to stay and insisting to Ed that they "don't always smell this way." The police officer in Ed doesn't like fugitives in her family's home, even though she herself is a felon now, albeit a good-intentioned one. Another complication arises with a visit from H.I.'s boss at work, Glen (Sam McMurray), his wife Dot (Frances McDormand) and their seemingly endless stream of diabolical children. "Mind you don't cut yourself, Mordecai" and "Take that diaper off your head and put it back on your sister" are just two of the many things Glen yells as his brood goes wild. While Dot rapidly lectures Ed on the need for insurance, avoiding orthodontic work and making sure the baby stays up to date on his "dip-tet boosters," Glen confides to H.I. that Dot wants another one, because these have grown too big to cuddle, but something has gone wrong with his semen. H.I. tries to lie about how he and Ed got to "adopt" a child so fast, but more trouble arises when Glen suggests to H.I. that they swap wives because he and Dot like to swing. H.I. punches Glen, who takes off like a madman and runs smack into a tree. Glen flees H.I., telling him not to bother coming into work anymore and promising to sue.

From that moment on, Raising Arizona essentially becomes an extended free-for-all chase. Since H.I. figures that Glen will make good on his word and fire him, he finds himself passing by convenience stores again "that weren't on the way home." Ed puts her foot down and wants Gale and Evelle gone. "I'd rather light a candle than curse your darkness," Gale tells H.I., while trying to convince him to help with a bank robbery. H.I. declines, but with Ed and the baby in the car, he does proceed to rob a convenience store for money and Huggies, setting off a loopy, more than five-minute long pursuit sequence. A pissed off Ed drives off with the baby, leaving H.I. to escape on foot. The Coens' hyperkinetic camera doesn't stop for a second as it rolls through groceries, streets and houses while clerks and dogs join the H.I. hunt.

Of course, the deadliest pursuit has yet to occur. H.I. already has had visions of a strange biker who takes no mercy on anyone or anything, and the vision turns out to be Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb), a self-described tracker, "some say hound dog." He meets with Nathan Arizona and offers to find his boy, but for a higher price than the reward the furniture magnate has offered. Arizona refuses, but Smalls insists he'll find the baby anyway and take whatever price "the market will bear." Back at the trailer, the chaos escalates as Glen figures out where H.I. and Ed got the baby and demands they turn the tot over to him and Dot. Before H.I. can even contemplate what to do, Gale and Evelle, who overheard the conversation, decide to steal the infant for themselves. Gale and H.I. tear the trailer apart in a residence-wrecking fight that takes place while Evelle shields Nathan Jr. The fugitives prevail and take off with Nathan Jr. with plans to hold him for ransom (and use him as a third man on the bank holdup). When Ed returns home to find H.I. tied up, she frees him and the couple leave to rescue the child, though Ed makes it clear that they aren't good for each other and should split once the baby is safe. The raucous slapstick melees run nearly nonstop after that as the convicts grow too fond of Nathan Jr. to part with him and Smalls arrives to whisk the baby away for his own nefarious purposes, leading to a final showdown with H.I. and Ed. Despite the frenzied pace and over-the-top nonsense, Raising Arizona even manages to conjure some warmth as the film winds down, though perhaps what touched me the most re-watching the film this time is remembering how much I loved the Coen brothers back then, until I felt their career went off the rails beginning with The Hudsucker Proxy. At least their upcoming film, No Country for Old Men, shows some promise as the vehicle marking their return to filmmaking I love instead of just doing variations on the same gags and gimmicks that I still love in their first four films, but has grown old by now.

From top to bottom, all the actors hit exactly the right notes for the movie. Forsythe and Goodman make for a hysterical pair of not-so-swift criminals. Cobb displays just the right amount of menace to remain a cartoon without pushing the film off its comic tone and into a terror mode. The late Parker gets some great material as Nathan Arizona as well as when he yells at the multitude of cops loitering at his house. "Dammit, are you boys gonna chase down your leads or are you gonna sit drinkin' coffee in the one house in the state where I know my boy ain't at?" Even the small roles of bank customers and store owners get priceless moments, especially Charles "Lew" Smith who plays the store owner who utters the response that gives this post its title when Evelle asks a question about some balloons. Cage still was in the early years of his career and Arizona marked the middle film of a three-film run of great Cage performances that started the year before with Peggy Sue Got Married and would concluded later in 1987 with Moonstruck. The breakout actor though was undoubtedly Holly Hunter as Ed. Hunter had appeared in a handful of films and TV movies, but Raising Arizona gave Hunter her biggest exposure so far, but it was just an appetizer for the gourmet meal Hunter would serve fans of great movies and acting in December 1987: Broadcast News.

UPDATE March 17, 2012: As we now know, my hopes for No Country for Old Men ended up being more than fulfilled. That same year, the brothers wrote and directed "Tuileries," one of the best shorts in the great compilation film, Paris, je t'aime . The Coens took a minor step backward with the so-so Burn After Reading that came next. However, the next movie they made ranked as one of their all-time greatest. A Serious Man also introduced me to the great actor Michael Stuhlbarg, who had mostly toiled upon the stage but would go on to impress me in a completely different type of role than his Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man when he became 1920s gangster Arnold Rothstein on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Most recently, the Coens accomplished that rare feat of remaking a film and producing a greater version. Granted, the original True Grit wasn't a masterpiece, but it did contain John Wayne's Oscar-winning role as Rooster Cogburn which Jeff Bridges took on, easily besting the Duke. What really made the Coens' True Grit exceed the 1969 film version was young Hailee Steinfeld playing Mattie Ross. Yes, the Coens I loved early in their career have matured and returned better than ever. It's good that they can produce great works again and we continue to have their older classics such as Raising Arizona holding up after 25 years.

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This movie features one of my favorite chase sequences ever, and I can't stop laughing all the way through it. :D "Hyperkinetic camera" indeed. I own this one on DVD and your post has just convinced me to watch it again. Great job, Edward. Thank you.
I have to disagree with you about the Coens' career going off the rails. I liked The Man Who Wasn't There and Hudsucker (note that it's the name on the uniforms in Raising Arizona), loved Fargo and Oh Brother, et al... and even managed to find something to like about Intolerable Cruelty. I am not a fan of Miller's Crossing nor Barton Fink, and there isn't enough space to vent my hatred of The Big Lebowski.

Raising Arizona is my favorite Coen Brothers movie (Blood Simple is #2). It's this wild, absurdist nightmare that eventually chokes you up with its ending, easily the best writing the Coen Brothers have ever done. I watched this for the umpteemth time a few weeks ago and Cage's closing narration still managed to get to me.

Carter Burwell's score is easily one of the most annoying things ever to assault my ears (it makes me feel like I'm about to be sodomized by those guys from Deliverance), yet I can't put my finger on why it's so perfect for this film. And lest we forget that Barry Sonnenfeld shot this, and Sam Raimi influenced all those frenetic shots straight from The Evil Dead (which Joel Coen co-edited).
I know I'm alone in the wilderness on Fargo, but to me it's one of the most overrated films of all time. McDormand is great (though she's not a lead) but the film was the just the latest of them telling another murder/kidnapping story among people with accents. The scene that really got to me was that pointless one between Marge and her old high school roommate which not only seemed to serve no purpose but which the Coens went out of their way to undermine later with a throwaway line about the guy lying. Compare it to another 1996 film with McDormand, Lone Star. Her one scene cameo actually served a purpose in further explaining Chris Cooper's character and moving the plot forward. No Country for Old Men seems to hold promise that they are getting away with the same variations on what they've done before. In fact, I grew so disillusioned in them that I haven't watched anything after O Brother.
I haven't seen "Raising Arizona" for many years, and I had not planned to watch again (so many movies, so little time), but your essay has made me want to look for it. Thanks for sharing your observations.

Joe Thompson ;0)
RAISING ARIZONA is for me the Coens' best film, by a considerable margin, and it was drastically downhill shortly afterward with MILLER'S CROSSING. The pre-credit sequence is one of the marvels of 1980s American filmmaking.
Nice piece, Ed. RAISING ARIZONA is indeed a great movie. Love that 11-minute prologue.

Like Odie I tend to disagree about the rest of the Coens' career. I also love HUDSUCKER, MAN WHO WASN'T THERE and even enjoyed INTOLERABLE CRUELTY. LADYKILLERS and BURN WITHOUT READING I didn't care for, but they're the exception rather than the rule.

I'd also like to suggest that the "pointless' scene between Marge and her old high school chum in FARGO is anything but. I think it actually does serve a purpose in the story and here's my theory. When she talks to him and, despite being very uncomfortable in an awkward situation, finds him very pathetic and feels sorry for him (because she believes his story) she is surprised and disheartened later to discover that he lied. She is then immediately seen driving and eating food she ordered at a burger joint drive-thru and, most important of all, thinking. Suddenly her facial expression changes and in the very next scene she goes back to talk to William H. Macy again. I think she was a little distraught that she was taken in by her old friend's story and it caused her to go back and re-evaluate other stories that she had heard in the course of her investigation. If she had believed his story and it was untrue, maybe she had believed other peoples' stories that had been false. That's what made her decide to go back to re-interview Macy's character, this time not letting him off the hook so easy.

That's my interpretation anyway, though I must confess I didn't figure it out myself. I read it somewhere along the way (I don't recall where) and it makes total sense to me.
That's as good as any reasoning for that Fargo scene and I know I've been one of a very small number who didn't care for it outside of McDormand's performance, but I also was lucky in that I got to see it on a junket long before it opened and all the praise poured in, so my opinion was formed free of interference and other voices. I loved their first three movies and liked Barton Fink a lot, but then starting with Hudsucker, I felt they were coasting and getting repetitve. It wasn't until No Country for Old Men that it seemed as if they had regained their mojo and A Serious Man took them to an entirely new level, where they plumbed their past and fused it into one of the best films they ever made. Excepting Burn After Reading, they've been on a helluva roll staring with No Country. I hope it continues.
What I like about the Coens is that in many of their films they inject more symbols and hidden themes than the average directors today. Kubrick would be proud (maybe).

I saw "The Man Who Wasn't There" in the theater and was very much disappointed, mainly because of the passive nature of Billy Bob Thornton's character and the overall dread, but then I read an analysis of the film that touched on the many repressed-homosexuality themes:

"Miller's Crossing," as a different analysis I read (I can't find it now) claims, also has gay themes, and not just the Bernie/Dane/Mink relationships. The analysis claims that Tom is actually in love (or as close to "love" as a man can be with another man without it being romantic love) with Leo.

I thought "Burn" was a lot of fun for one of those "between serious movies" movies that the Coens tend to make. One review said something to the effect of "It's a spy movie where everyone's an idiot and absolutely nothing is at stake."

As for "Raising Arizona," the film is full of fertility/birth imagery, from when the two convicts escape from prison through a hole, that's wet from the rain, and they're screaming (like childbirth), then when they return to prison through the hole (to the safety of the womb?), and the Woody Woodpecker tattoos on both H.I. and Leonard Smalls.
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