When the Great Recession hits, one man hits back… at all the wrong targets.
Comedy often comes from dark places in part because of our innate need to laugh during trying times. It may not heal the pain, but it can at least distract us from it. The still raw and recent recession may seem like an unlikely source for such humor, but Danny McBride‘s latest, Arizona, shows otherwise as real-world devastation fuels a funny until it’s not murder spree.
It’s 2009, and the recession has left entire rows of houses in one Arizona community outside Phoenix empty as homeowners default on their mortgages and are forced to move elsewhere. Cassie (Rosemarie DeWitt) is facing the problem from both sides — she’s at risk of losing her own home where she lives with her teenage daughter, Morgan (Lolli Sorenson), but she’s also a realtor struggling to make sales and earn commissions. Things take a turn for the even worse when an irate homeowner named Sonny (McBride) accidentally kills her boss during an argument, panics, and kidnaps her. Sonny immediately regrets it, but his internal debate as to what to do with her is interrupted by the snowballing effect of what he’s already done.
Arizona is a film filled with darkness as people see their lives wrecked by the country’s economic collapse, but it retains a playful tone all the same. The humor remains even after the bodies start hitting the floor, sometimes through situational laughs but most frequently due to McBride’s dialogue. The story itself, though, hits a self-imposed wall partway through as Cassie’s efforts to evade Sonny’s bipolar wrath see her behaving with increased stupidity — she essentially starts making really poor choices not only to keep the film going but also to keep the action contained in one neighborhood. Luckily for viewers the dramatic stalemate doesn’t interfere with the overall entertainment as it remains a funny and very cruel ride.
Director Jonathan Watson makes his feature debut here after years of first AD work on films as varied as Flightplan, Whip It, and The Disaster Artist. He succeeds well at capturing Arizona’s gated communities on the edge of nothingness and the blandly nebulous homes within — many of these houses are empty for the story, but even a fully-populated neighborhood can look deserted on a hot summer afternoon. It’s easy to believe the desolation and the depression that sprouts from it.
A handful of familiar faces appear in smaller roles including Luke Wilson and Kaitlin Olson as Cassie’s and Sonny’s respective exes, but the core of the film is the back and forth between DeWitt and McBride. She’s a woefully underused talent who should be leading far more films, and she once again shows why as she raises this movie’s caliber with a strong, compelling performance as a woman on the edge. McBride, meanwhile, does his usual McBride shtick, but he brings the goods with even darker turns than he delivered in Vice Principals.
It’s a funny movie, but it’s hobbled as it clearly runs out of ideas and steam halfway through as Sonny’s killing spree becomes the entire focus. Luke Del Tredici‘s (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) screenplay sets the killings against a promising real-world drama, but nothing comes of it beyond the initial setup revealing their financial straits. There’s no greater depth or follow-through with its commentary leaving viewers instead with nothing more than one-note laughs as Sonny knocks off dumb people.
Arizona succeeds on its laughs and cast, but a film running under ninety minutes shouldn’t have time to spin its narrative wheels.