Sasha Frere-Jones once wrote that Neil Diamond’s voice has two settings: more Neil and less Neil. Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies might be measured on a similar scale. After their 1984 debut Blood Simple, which a novice might not even recognize as a product of theirs if their names weren’t on it, they jacked the Coen dial straight to 11 for Raising Arizona (1987). This lunatic caper film will screen at the Walker Art Center on September 19 and October 14 as part of the Coens’ Regis Film Retrospective.
Raising Arizona contains all the contrasts that have made the Coens the definitive cult filmmakers of our time: the contrast between the characters’ high-flown diction and their below-brow circumstances, the contrast between broad humor and subtle asides, and most critically the contrast between the plot’s madcap antics and the almost chilly exactness of the filmmakers’ craftsmanship. It’s that last contrast that sits least well with me. A pie in the face just isn’t as funny if it’s fired with a laser rangefinder.
The title refers both to the film’s locale and the name of the unpainted-furniture baron (it’s exquisitely Coen that he’s not just a furniture baron, he’s specifically a baron of unpainted furniture) who fathers quintuplets, one of whom is kidnapped by ex-con H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and ex-cop Ed (Holly Hunter) when they discover, as H.I. explains in voiceover, that “Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” Just as the two are settling down with their stolen son, H.I.’s prison buddy Gale (John Goodman) digs his way out of the joint and literally erupts bellowing out of the earth—an apt debut given Goodman’s lasting prominence in the Coens’ oeuvre—to crash the party along with his brother Evelle (Wiliam Forsythe). A $25,000 ransom is declared on the perpetually smiling baby, who is then passed and re-passed among a series of characters who want to raise him, sell him, or both.
It’s fitting that the Walker sits on the edge of Uptown, since the Coens’ comedies are perfect incarnations of the hipster aesthetic: lowest-common-denominator culture appropriated and re-deployed with obnoxiously knowing precision. There’s something liberating about the exercise—about the deliberate disregard for rules like “you can’t have a character with an eighth-grade education using phrases like ‘ply her feminine wiles'”—but there’s also an unpleasant taste of mockery. (It’s okay to laugh at poor people, just so long as they’re white. Right?)
Still, clever is clever, and there are undeniably some very funny moments in Raising Arizona. The Coens’ fastidious planning serves them well in a tightly-choreographed chase that begins with Cage’s now-famous line, “I’ll be taking these Huggies and, uh…whatever cash you got.” Freed of the need to embody actual characters (it took the Coens a while longer to get to that point), the actors—most successfully Goodman, with his offhand suggestions that Cage isn’t exercising proper manly authority around the home—chew the scenery with glee. Some of the biggest laughs go to supporting characters, my favorite being an old man who becomes the second cashier held up for Huggies.
“These balloons blow up into funny shapes at all?” asks Evelle, grabbing a bag off a hook.
“Well, no,” replies the clerk. “Unless round is funny.”
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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