not in our stars, but in ourselves
We all love and miss Roger Ebert (well, at least, I do), but he was wrong sometimes. Case in point: his one-and-a-half-star review of Raising Arizona, in which he lists as a deficit something that’s one of the film’s many strengths:
I have a problem with movies where everybody talks as if they were reading out of an old novel about a bunch of would-be colorful characters. They usually end up sounding silly. For every movie like “True Grit” (1969) that works with lines like “I was determined not to give them anything to chaff me about,” there is a “Black Shield of Falworth,” with lines like “Yonder lies the castle of my father.” Generally speaking, it’s best to have your characters speak in strong but unaffected English, especially when your story is set in the present. Otherwise they’ll end up distracting the hell out of everybody.
That’s one of the problems with “Raising Arizona.” The movie is narrated by its hero, a man who specializes in robbing convenience stores, but it sounds as if he just graduated from the Rooster Cogburn school of elocution. There are so many “far be it from me’s” and “inasmuches” in his language that he could play Ebenezer Scrooge with the same vocabulary – and that’s not what you expect from a two-bit thief who lives in an Arizona trailer park.
Oh, Roger. Rest in peace. Anyway, the heightened language in Raising Arizona works beautifully because everything is heightened: the action, the emotion, the pitch, the speed. The Coens were inspired by Preston Sturges, master of madcap screwball comedy; and by Southern windbag – er, writer – William Faulkner and his less long-winded fellow Southerner, Flannery O’Conner. With these disparate tributaries feeding into the raging river that is Raising Arizona, the Coens made a film that is unmistakably their own. As usual.*
H.I. “Hi” McDunnough is not so much a career criminal as a career recidivist. He sticks up convenience stores with unloaded guns, gets caught, gets sent to prison for a few months, gets out, and does it all over again. While he’s being fingerprinted and photographed after one of his arrests, he notices the uncommonly delicate-looking officer barking “Turn to the RIGHT!” at him: “Ed” (Holly Hunter). He flirts with her a little bit, and goes about his way in prison. The next time he’s arrested, Ed is there again to photograph and fingerprint him, but she’s crying this time. Hi asks what’s wrong, and she says that her fiancé (that’s what she means to say, at least) left her. Hi tells her that her ex is a fool, and she’s a beautiful desert flower. By the time his sentence is up, he realizes he wants to go straight: he asks Ed to marry him, and they live together in a mobile home in the desert. They discover, after exhaustive attempts, that Ed is infertile, to their grief and shock. Around that time, they hear about the “Arizona Quints”: quintuplets born to local furniture salesman Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). Ed thinks that five babies must be more than the Arizonas can handle, and that it’s unfair for the Arizonas to have so much when the McDunnoughs have so little, so she and Hi steal Nathan Jr. (“the best one,” they figure). They try to start a life as a family unit, but complications abound. For one thing, Nathan Arizona has put out a $25,000 reward for the return of Nathan Jr. Bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) tells Nathan Sr. that he’ll find Nathan Jr. for $50,000 – or else he’ll sell the baby to someone who will pay that much. For another thing, two of Hi’s prison buddies show up after busting out of the joint: Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle Snoats (William Forsythe), idiot brothers who crash the would-be idyll of early family life. They have a plan to stick up a “hayseed” bank, and they want Hi to join them. Ed is unhappy about all of this, but she’s also experiencing pangs of guilt for stealing someone else’s baby. With Smalls hot on their trail, Gale and Evelle fixing to rob a bank or steal a baby (or both), and the marital strife introduced by a new baby, things are awful complicated for the McDunnoughs.
It all ends (mostly) happily, though, not to give anything away in a nearly thirty-year-old movie. In fact, this is one of the gentlest endings I’ve seen in any of the Coens’ films. My boyfriend (who’s the Beatrice to my Dante through this Coen Brothers journey) said that this movie is a succinct refutation of the idea that the Coens dislike and maltreat all their characters. I agree. It’s abundantly clear that Joel and Ethan are terribly fond of Ed and Hi, as screwy as they are; they’re even fond of Gale and Evelle, and Nathan Sr., and even – in a more poignant way – of Smalls: with his “MAMA DIDN’T LOVE ME” tattoo and his pair of baby shoes that he carries around, we’re permitted to see that Smalls has probably had a pretty loveless life, and that’s worth sympathy, at a bare minimum.
The world of Raising Arizona is one that isn’t always fair, but it’s almost always just – and there’s a difference. For instance: it’s not fair that Ed can’t have a baby. However, it’s just that Smalls – who’s trying to kill Hi and steal a baby to sell on the black market – gets blown up by one of his own grenades. (You can have sympathy for him, still, but he was trying to do some pretty low things.) It’s not fair that Hi gets fired from his job for punching out his boss when the boss suggests they swap wives. It’s just, though, that Gale and Evelle decide to tunnel their way right back into prison after they fumble not only the bank job but also the baby-napping. You see the difference. The Coens are all about consequences, and that’s where the justice comes in: when people are punished, by their conscience or by an external force, for doing something bad. In this movie, they’re also all about circumstances beyond anyone’s control – and those are almost always unfair. Chaos is the only thing that’s fair, as the Joker says, so the wild, hootenanny chase scenes are at least a sort of equalizer. (One of them includes a puppy parade, so, you know, it was awesome.) And so, perhaps after all this madness, Ed and Hi will find a way to live happily ever after. Certainly, that’s what Hi dreams about; I certainly hope he’s right.
*To be honest, it’s getting to be quite intimidating, writing about all these movies that have been out for decades. What the hell can I add to the conversation? Nothing. Oh, well. It never stops me with any of my dusty old ’30s films, so I can’t let it stop me now, either.
P.S. This is my reaction to literally every dog I encounter: