Raising Arizona (1987, Joel Coen)

Halfway through Raising Arizona is this breathtaking chase sequence. Until this point in the film, while there’s been a lot of phenomenal direction, it’s all been brief. Raising Arizona starts in summary, with lead Nicolas Cage narrating, and it doesn’t start slowing down the narrative pace until just before the chase sequence. But then the chase happens and it’s amazing and Arizona seems poised to just keep going with that precise, outrageous filmmaking.

Then it doesn’t. Instead it gets lost in its supporting cast for a while before getting back on track, which is too bad. But there had been warning signs–like the film never really giving Holly Hunter reasonable character motivation, instead letting Cage’s narration–and charm–sell their romance. Though, at the halfway point, it certainly doesn’t seem like Hunter and Cage are going to get the narrative shaft for supporting cast members John Goodman and William Forsythe. Yet they do.

It’s during Goodman and Forsythe’s tedious time in the spotlight one has time to reflect on just how few of its promises the film has fulfilled.

The starting narration is long. Arizona runs about ninety minutes (without end credits) and it’s got a long, narrated opening summary sequence, then the lengthy chase sequence right in the middle. And then a substantial “epilogue” but more wrap-up.

Cage is front and center, literally–he’s getting his mug shot taken–right at the start. Hunter is taking his mug shot. He robs convenience stores (without bullets so it’s not armed robbery). She’s a cop. They fall in love. Without her saying very much. It’s all from Cage’s perspective, which is great. He’s a lovable, well-meaning recidivist. Right from the start, Cage’s performance is amazing. His narration and his regular performance. It’s all amazing.

No one else is amazing. There are some other excellent performances, some quite good ones, no bad ones, but nothing compares to Cage’s. So it’s really too bad the Coen Brothers’ script gives him so little to do in the second half of the film. Better than Hunter, of course, who doesn’t really get to show any personality until the prelude to the chase sequence–and then barely anything the rest of the film. And that epilogue demotes her importance, which she’s sort of been clawing to get.

Cage and Hunter get married. In the narrated summary. Cage has been in and out of prison, but he settles down once they’re married. Hunter wants kids. Only she can’t. It’s not a story arc for her. It’s a plot detail in Cage’s story. Hunter becomes scenery for a while until they hear about some quintuplets and decide to kidnap one. This decision isn’t discussed in any scenes, it’s all covered in Cage’s narration. Because apparently the Coen Brothers couldn’t figure out a way to get Hunter to go from cop to kidnapper in scene.

Cage–and the film–can cover it. It’s shocking how much it can cover, which just makes it even more shocking when it no longer can cover. Even though Goodman and Forsythe give fine performances, it’s stunning how much lost the film gets in the weeds with them.

See, once they kidnap a baby–from unpainted furniture king Trey Wilson (who’s fantastic) and his wife, Lynne Kitei (who gets a scene and a quarter)–Goodman and Forsythe break out of jail and visit old buddy Cage. They need a place to lie low, unaware there’s a bounty hunter (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) after them.

Pretty soon Cobb sees the news about the kidnapped baby and decides to go after it too.

Then there’s a throwaway subplot involving Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray as a couple Hunter wants to be friends with. It’s a contrived, connective subplot, just there to move things around and to be funny. There’s some gorgeous photography from Barry Sonnenfeld during that sequence; the photography’s always good, always great, but the couples picnic sequence is about the only time Sonnenfeld gets to shoot exteriors during the day. It’s also a place where Hunter could get some material.

She doesn’t. Instead, the Coen Brothers focus on McMurray’s dipshit, who’s Cage’s boss; that detail comes out of the blue, since the only person Cage is ever working with is M. Emmet Walsh in a two scene cameo.

Eventually everyone wants the baby. The script uses it as punchline, not actual character motivation. It’s during that weedy period in the runtime when it doesn’t seem like Arizona is ever going to get back on track.

It does, finally, because it puts Cage and Hunter together in scenes and as a team. Despite the film being all about their whirlwind, glorious romance, they don’t get to establish actual chemistry–between the actors, not chemistry created through editing–until the third act. Way too late.

But then there’s this great action showdown in the third act, with a small but excellent chase scene, and director Coen, cinematographer, Sonnenfeld, and editor Michael R. Miller work some magic. Not as magical as the chase sequence, but magic enough to find the movie in the weeds and get it out onto the road again.

There’s some great writing. But most of it is in the first act. Wilson ends up with better scenes than anyone else in the second half. The movie doesn’t just sacrifice Hunter for Goodman and Forsythe, it eventually sacrifices Cage.

Great music from Carter Burwell. The whole thing is technically marvelous. It just doesn’t have anywhere near enough plot for the story it says it’s going to be telling. Even if the Goodman and Forsythe stuff were good, there’s not enough of it.

Raising Arizona has got plenty of problems, but it’s still a fairly thrilling success. You just have to wait through a lot of second half of the second act lag. But the filmmakers do come through. It just doesn’t make any sense why they don’t for a while.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Michael R. Miller; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Ethan Coen; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Nicolas Cage (H.I. McDunnough), Holly Hunter (Ed), John Goodman (Gale), William Forsythe (Evelle), Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona Sr.), Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb (Leonard Smalls), Sam McMurray (Glen), Frances McDormand (Dot), Lynne Kitei (Florence Arizona), and T.J. Kuhn (Nathan Junior).


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