Film Review: Arizona

Death comes swiftly and often in this dim, mean-spirited comedy-thriller.
Specialty Releases

The 2008 global financial crisis was a disaster to be reckoned with by economists and historians for the next several generations. Filmmakers, too, have had their say on the devastating culture of corrupt securities and subprime lending practices that collapsed the housing market and left millions of homeowners drowning in debt, or flat-out homeless.

In 2015, the star-studded The Big Short offered an insightful, and Oscar-winning, big-picture view of the crisis, while 2014 indie 99 Homes provided an emotionally intense, grassroots take on one family’s desperation to hold onto their home. Now, along comes the sardonic thriller Arizona with its own idiosyncratic perspective, treating the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression as a supposedly rich backdrop for a crime-ridden comedy of errors. Unfortunately, the film, set in 2009, misses its comic target by a mile, resulting in a dumbfounding collision of unsympathetic characters always choosing the most moronic thing to do in any given situation.

The one character here who does behave consistently with a lick of sense is hapless realtor Cassie Fowler, portrayed with grit and charm by Rosemarie DeWitt. Introduced in a genuinely funny opening set-piece that establishes the film’s would-be acerbic tone, Cassie is the recently jilted wife of cheating husband Scott (Luke Wilson) and the put-upon mom of surly teen Morgan (Lolli Sorenson). She’s also floundering in debt, months behind on mortgage payments for a house that isn’t worth bubkes in this fast-sinking market. Just when she’s sure things couldn’t get much worse for her, they indeed get much, much worse, after she witnesses a murder and is kidnapped by the fiend responsible.

Actually, crass and disgruntled homeowner Sonny (Danny McBride) is more an impulsive doofus than a truly cold-blooded killer. The script by Luke Del Tredici, a writer and producer on network sitcoms “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “30 Rock,” clearly intends for Sonny’s nefarious shenanigans to be not just wrong, but hilariously wrong, as he rampantly kills and kidnaps in order to cover up his crime spree of killing and kidnapping. The bodies pile up along with the misguided choices, until even a dog gets murdered for no reason other than Sonny’s stupidity.

The feature directing debut of longtime production vet Jonathan Watson, Arizona seems intent at first to capture the shock and abject fear that enveloped average middle-class American homebuyers who felt screwed over by a rigged system. But by the time Cassie and Morgan find themselves scrambling through a sewer drain to escape Sonny’s deadly wrath, the movie has long since abandoned any pointed effort to portray the righteous anger of the aggrieved.

Rather, the film treats Cassie and company as little more than expendable pawns in Sonny’s unfunny slasher-esque onslaught. He eventually loses count of how many innocent lives he’s taken, and the movie is no less cavalier about wasting the talents of DeWitt and performers like David Alan Grier, as an only somewhat helpful sheriff, and Seth Rogen, in an uninspired cameo as Cassie’s jerk of a boss. And McBride’s quipping performance as Sonny isn’t diverting enough to overcome the character’s plain nastiness as a human being.

In a telling moment for this misfire, a gardener in Cassie’s subdivision of boarded-up, foreclosed-upon homes is seen painting a dead lawn green in a weak attempt to help shore up fast-dwindling property value. That visual might also apply to Watson’s movie, which, throughout, looks just fine on the surface, thanks in part to the contributions of cinematographer Drew Daniels (It Comes At Night), yet beneath the jokes and cynicism proves to be barren of substantial value as satire, suspense or comedy. Whether or not Cassie makes it out alive, at least DeWitt survives with her dignity intact.