The Coens Raise a Little Cain
IF RAISING Arizona had been made only three only years ago, you'd likely be standing in line tonight to see the special added showing of the film at the local Bijou. This crazed, self-referential comic scamper through the New South hopes to defy categorization, yet fits neatly into American cinema's newest genre: the Crazed, Self-Referential Comic Scamper through American Culture Movie.
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
At the Harvard Square Theater
The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, must have been watching movies since the womb. Their first film, the independently made hit Blood Simple, was a brilliant parody of film noir and the best example of that genre made since the death of James Cain. Raising Arizonais a different sort of film altogether, a hyperkinetic comedy with a budget. But it still betrays a rabid obsession with movies, from its constant toying with technical effects to the incessant Gremlins--style stream of references to others movies. Some are obvious, while others are maddeningly oblique and occasionally the film degenerates into a mass Trivial Pursuit game. It's us against the Coens. They win.
FORTUNATELY FOR the trivially illiterate, the movie offers plenty to chew on by itself. Nicolas Gage, a fine young actor who is making a career out of playing louts, here is H.I. McDonough. H.I. is a small-time hood and big-time loser who falls in love with the officer who takes his mug-shots, the stern but delicate Edwina (Holly Hunter). He and Ed are happy in their trailer park until they discover that Ed is barren. As H.I's extensive prison record prevents them from adopting, they have only one option: stealing one of the new Arizona Quints, five identical babies born to one Nathan Arizona, the king of unpainted furniture. Clearly the Arizonas have more kids than they can handle.
Of course, their parental bliss is shortlived. Soon the police are on their trail, two escaped cons come to visit and all hell breaks loose in the person of Leonard Smalls, the Mad Biker from the Apocalypse. Smalls is a self-described "manhunter" with an endless supply of weaponry and a black Harley that belches flame.
The Coens constantly joke with their subjects, breaking down any real interest in their fortunes with a barrage of irreverent yuks. H.I. is a moron, yet drawls with the locution of a frustrated poet; meanwhile the relatively stable Edwina turns into a maniacal parody of motherhood. "Ah love him so much!" she wails over the purloined baby, all of 14 seconds after clapping eyes on him.
The Coens are superb writers and great technicians, and a great deal of the fun in the film stems from their smooth competence. They'll strap a Steadicam to anything that moves, and the results are sometimes extraordinary. Even if some of their visual jokes are stolen--like the Mad Biker blowing up bunnies with a hand grenade--they remain surprising and funny. The sequence in which H.I. is chased through a suburb by the police, a heaving armed albino convenience store clerk, and a pack of dogs deserves a special Oscar for Gratuitous Tension in a Feature Film.
THE REAL delight in the film, though, is what the Coen's don't include: the bits and pieces of plots and suggestions of plots that appear at the fringes of the frame: the strange prisoner who claims to eat sand, the Mad Biker's bronzed baby shoes, and an unexplained tattoo coincidence.
Raising Arizona is strange and assuredly funny, and as such is certainly better than the more-easily digestible pap other film comedies tend to offer. But one complaint: why can't filmmakers as talented and clever as the Coens make a movie about something other than movies? I hereby call on the movie industry for two things to be done before the 1990s: 1) Take away the Coens' Steadicam and their VCR so the next movie that make will point to something other than itself: and 2) Get a bunch of Southwestern suburbanites and let them make a movie about East Coast intellectual artistes. Just for a change.