Danny McBride has always been a great screen presence, whether in indies such as David Gordon Green‘s “All the Real Girls,” right through to comedies such as “Pineapple Express” and “This is the End.” He’s always elevated whatever he’s been in with his unique style of slacker comedy. McBride’s greater impact, h0wever, might have been on television where he built the legend of failed professional baseball pitcher Kenny Powers in four successful seasons on HBO‘s “Eastbound and Down.”
In “Arizona,” directed by Jonathan Watson, McBride is given an all-too-rare leading role as Sonny. Even though McBride’s sadsack loser goes on a killing spree in the empty suburban town of Harden, Arizona, it’s still played for darkly cynical laughs. What starts the killing spree? Well, Sonny isn’t too happy with the house a duplicitous real-estate agent (cameo courtesy of Seth Rogen) sold him. They fight and eventually Rogen’s boss winds up dead by Sonny’s hands. Cassie (Rosemarie DeWitt) works for Rogen’s arrogant boss and witnesses the crime, so Sonny takes her hostage, but starts to see they share the same disdain for the man who used to tell her to “put those tits to work.”
Trapped in Sonny’s mansion, waiting as he plots his next move, Cassie learns of the debt he’s accrued, his lifeless marriage, and the thankless routine that comes with having kids. Sonny is broke, has just killed someone and is now involved in a hostage situation. When his wife comes home early and finds Cassie tied to a chair, Sonny snaps again. The similarities between Sonny and Cassie are supposed to bond them together. She, too, had a lifeless marriage which ended in divorce, with her husband (Luke Wilson) leaving her for a younger woman, and has a daughter that’s bitter that she didn’t get to go live with her father.
The chemistry McBride and DeWitt have is rather strange, and they never really mesh together. Both characters try to outdo each other in this darkly malicious comedy. DeWitt, an actress of considerable talent, finds a way to make her character believable every step of the way. McBride struggles a little more with Sonny and the tonal shifts that emerge in Luke Del Tredici‘s screenplay. Sonny is supposed to become scarier by the minute but, instead, Watson seems to just let McBride be McBride: a goofy pothead with an outrageously laughable ego and no brain at all.
The darkly screwball spirit does work sometimes, especially when McBride and DeWitt trade barbs. Watson also sets his film a year after the economic crash, and the dire state of the housing market at the time makes for an interesting backdrop for Cassie and Sonny’s cat and mouse game. The dialogue between McBride and DeWitt also brings a spark to the film, but Watson seems more interested in piling up bodies, rather than conversation and chemistry between his leads.
“Arizona” eventually turns into a slasher flick, and its over the top climax, explosions, and gun fights keep you invested despite the overcooked plot. It’s a testament to McBride and DeWitt’s talent that “Arizona” doesn’t go off the rails. The pair attempt to raise the stakes above the film’s formula and do succeed in ways other actors would have failed. The potential of this movie’s premise might have been squandered by cliches, but McBride and DeWitt keep it watchable. [C+]