The Coen Project Part 2: Raising Arizona

After seeing Blood Simple, you’d be likely to peg Joel and Ethan Coen simply as promising writer-directors of drama. Three years later (1987), you’d be proven very wrong. When the brothers set out to make their second film, their primary goal was to create something as different from their debut as possible. Since Blood Simple was dark and realistic, the obvious choice of direction was a comedy. Enter Raising Arizona. 

At least in the context of film and television, the American Southwest often feels like blank slate where anything can happen. Maybe it’s the literal blankness of the desert, maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the sparseness of population. Could you imagine Breaking Bad taking place in, say, Boston? New Mexico and Arizona are places where you can believe a high school teacher getting away with selling meth, or a young couple stealing a baby to cope with infertility. It’s the perfect place to stage a comedy about crazy people doing crazy things.

With a bigger but still modest budget of $5 million to work with, Joel and Ethan don’t waste a single frame: an eleven-minute voice-over sequence packs in an entire act of narrative before the opening credits even roll. We’re introduced to convenience store robber H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) who meets police officer Edwina (Holly Hunter) while having his mug shot taken. Over the course of several repeat offences, the pair fall for each other and marry after Hi gets out of jail and vows to keep on the straight and narrow. They decide that they should have a child, reasoning that “…every day we kept a child out of the world was a day he might later regret having missed.” Alas, Ed is infertile: “her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase,” laments Hi.

Devastated by their rejection from adoption agencies due to Hi’s delinquency, the unhappy couple hear an interesting news flash: local furniture mogul Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife Florence (Lynne Kitei)  have welcomed quintuplets. Hi and Ed figure that since five is a lot of children, the parents would not “overly” miss one. They head out to get them a baby, and the insanity that follows never lets up.

In my last post I talked a little bit about cartoons, and how they’re typically driven by characters rather than situations. The live-action comedies that I enjoy the most take a similar approach, turning a handful oddballs loose in some environment and seeing how they bounce off of each other.  Raising Arizona does this in a more literally cartoony way than a typical comedy. Many of the characters play on cartoon archetypes: Hi is a human Wile E. Coyote, disheveled and running around the desert, a constant victim of his own ineptitude. John Goodman and William Forsythe play Hi’s pals Gale and Evelle, a pair of prison escapees who aren’t far off from trouble-making cartoon duos like Ren and Stimpy or Pinky and the Brain, although Goodman comes off more Foghorn Leghorn than anything else. Hell, the baby quints even have cartoon names: Harry, Barry, Larry, Garry, and Nathan Jr (he’s an awful damn good one).

In stark contrast to Blood Simple’s naturalistic dialog, the characters all have eccentric ways of speaking, a mix of hick talk with solemnly biblical proclamations. The juxtaposition of lower-class criminals speaking in such a heightened manner drives much of the film’s humor. In an interview the Coens said that the dialog sprang from a mix of regional dialect and what they imagined these people would be reading, namely the newspaper and the Bible. 

Although little Nathan Jr. is the MacGuffin that drives the action, Raising Arizona’s central conflict isn’t really about a baby, it’s about Hi’s struggle between what he believes to be his innate criminal nature and his desire to become stable and respectable, motivated by his love of Ed. Maybe the funniest way this inner battle plays out is the scene where he expounds upon how he’s a changed man while simultaneously shoving several firearms into his pants. He just can’t help himself. 

It might be worth talking about why Hi and his menacing biker antagonist Leonard Smalls (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) share the same Woody Woodpecker tattoo. I’m wary about delving into speculation about certain symbols within the Coen Brothers’ films, mostly because from what I’ve read they tend not to put as much specific meaning into them as their fans would like to believe. That said, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Smalls is a manifestation of Hi’s criminal side. A lot of people online suggest that Smalls is actually Hi’s father or brother, but that kind of enters the realm of fan theory.  I just love the fact that it’s Woody Woodpecker, because it’s an explicit cartoon reference in a deliberately cartoony movie.


Stray Observations:

  • The Coens had originally planned to film The Hudsucker Proxy next, but the budget it would’ve required was too large for their studio. If you look closely at the jumpsuits worn at Hi’s job, you can see a “Hudsucker Industries” label.
  • I love the emergence of the Coen’s tendency to repeat a certain phrase or word over and over, like “sombitch” and Nathan Arizona’s incessant use of “butt”.
  • Is it just me, or is Gale and Evelle’s emergence from the mud outside of the prison eerily similar the spawning of the Uruk-hai in Lord of the Rings ?
  • Favorite moment: Ed feeling the need to blare her police siren while rushing to inform Hi that she’s “barren”.

Christine VS 80’s: Round 1

Like most of us, my new hobby is watching Stranger Things repeatedly until my eyes bleed. Among other things, the show has made me realize that the 1980’s is somewhat of a blind spot in my pop cultural education. Sure, I know the hits, but I want to delve deeper into the weird corners, both good and bad. Luckily, Netflix has no shortage of fodder for my investigation. I shall be rating these in terms of watchability and 80’s-ness for your movie night decision-making benefit.


The Burbs, 1989

Young Tom Hanks is a high-strung suburb-dweller spending his vacation from work snooping on his neighbors in what is essentially a goofy, late 80’s version of Rear Window. Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun attempt to prove that their creepy neighbors are in a murder-cult while Carrie Fisher rolls her eyes. A teenaged Corey Feldman sits on his porch and comments on the action like a vaguely punk greek chorus.

This is the earliest Tom Hanks movie I’ve seen, and I’m really digging this era of his work. Highlights include Tom Hanks writhing furiously on the ground having been stung by a swarm of bees, Tom Hanks slowly chewing and swallowing a slimy sardine, and Tom Hanks sneezing uncontrollably for no apparent reason. If you are interested in seeing Tom Hanks do any of these things, this film is for you.

Watchability: 3/5     80’s-ness Rating: 4/5

The takeaway: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everyone isn’t out to get you.


Harry and the Hendersons, 1987

Like many #millenials, my first introduction to Harry and the Hendersons came in the form of the 30 Rock episode Goodbye, My Friend. Jack Donaghy views the film with the TGS writers and takes its message to heart, declaring to Liz Lemon: “That film has layers”.

Does it actually have layers? Kind of, just not terribly entertaining ones. Canonical 80’s Movie Dad John Lithgow plays George Henderson, a trigger-happy rifle enthusiast who has dragged his family on a camping trip, only to hit a large, ape-like creature with their station wagon multiple times on the way back. Presuming its death, the Hendersons tote the beast back to their suburban home, hoping to gain some cash off of the discovery. The animal is in fact very much alive. The rest of the plot is essentially E.T.

In a way, this movie is quite prescient. I think that at the time it was supposed to be about environmentalism, but small town Americans frantically buying guns to defend themselves from a strange, foreign, presumably dangerous something feels very 2016.

Stray observations:

Not to be pedantic, but since Harry was willing to eat a fish sandwich and not a cheeseburger he’s actually a pescatarian, not a vegetarian.

Watch out for a Ronald Reagan cameo during the obligatory 80’s weird-creature-is-fascinated-by-television sequence.
Watchability: 2/5     80’s-ness: 3/5

The takeaway: I know what America needs to solve its gun problem: Bigfoot.