Monday, April 8, 2013

Hidden Gems of Netflix: Raising Arizona


"It's a craaazy world."
"Someone oughta sell tickets."

Overall I find myself harboring mixed feelings about the work of the Coen brothers. They are clearly possessed of excellent craftsmanship, yet while their films are always fascinating and entertaining at the very least, there seems to lurk beneath the surface of most of them a certain cynicism. Some of their harshest critics accuse them of being out-and-out misanthropes, perhaps snickering up their sleeves at the often hapless characters that inhabit their tonally patchy and sometimes abruptly absurd stories. And I can see that this line of reasoning could indeed be applied to some portion of their oeuvre. Still, I will not go nearly so far as to say that such injurious appellations as misanthropy properly reflect each and every one of their films indiscriminately.

And thus I want to champion an early example of a film of the brothers Coen that has genuine heart and optimism. I dare to suggest that "Raising Arizona" (being the second film by said brothers, and being the chief subject of this review), represents their most sincere effort to come alongside their screwed-up screwball characters. In H.I. and Edwina (Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter), the repeat offender criminal and the policewoman he marries, they proffer protagonists who are at once woefully incompetent and deeply sympathetic. For this oddest of odd couples have a persistent, ingrained, and emotional desire to have a child, but Ed is barren. The farcical plot of the film is launched (after a splendidly paced opening that introduces these characters to the audience and each other), by this most primal, natural, and Biblical of human desires, and by the desperate and criminal plan that the two dream up to fulfill the glaring lack in their newly minted domestic life. Because of H.I.'s criminal past they cannot adopt, so they decide to steal a baby, one of the Arizona quintuplets.

This rash actwhich the film readily admits through H.I.'s earnest though somewhat torpid narration is not such a great idealeads to a multitude of problems, not the least of which is that neither of these two would-be parents really know how to take care of a baby. Their ineptitude fuels much of the comedy, but at the same time we are shown that though they are clearly misguided (can there even be comedies about sane, reasonable people?), they love this kidnapped kid and they love each other. The other main difficulty they encounter stems from the fact that almost everyone in the wacky world of "Raising Arizona" is a would-be parent. Nathan Jr. the missing Arizona boy is in very high demand, and H.I. and Ed are soon surrounded by alternately quirky and over-the-top criminal elements, comically determined and hell-bent on the baby himself and the reward money respectively. Both of these elements link back directly to the hapless and continually flustered H.I.:  two of his prison friends break out and want to hole up in his house, and his nightmares predict and/or produce a ridiculous bounty hunter outlaw, the grenade-loving, small-animal-obliterating Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, whose visual introduction very much lives up to that title. The Coens clever script makes plain that this figure of almost abstract macho evil (the farcical forerunner of Javier Bardem's stone-faced killer in "No Country for Old Men"?) is the embodiment of the bad and criminal tendencies that keep pulling H.I. back in, and the danger in which he thus puts his fragile new family. This tangle of conscience, consequences, and comic catastrophe builds slowly but surely to several great scenes: a fantastic whirling slapstick set-piece that keeps doubling back on itself, a genuinely touching emotional and moral reckoning, and an intense and bizarre showdown involving guns, grenades, and a revelatory tattoo. The films final moments express a graceful and sincere hopefulness that is incredibly refreshing.

And thus, to my pleasant surprise, I can report that the famously sarcastic and weird Coen brothers have smuggled within the undeniable oddness of "Raising Arizona"a goofy and misshapen crime dramedy farcea thoughtful reflection on parenthood and responsibility.

"Raising Arizona" (PG-13) **** (Available on Netflix Instant)

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