Raising Arizona (1987) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA rated PG-13 for some violence and language
Running time: 94 min.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Randall 'Tex' Cobb, Sam McMurray, Frances McDormand
Cameo: M. Emmet Walsh
Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Review published April 13, 2013
Joel and Ethan Coen follow up their neo-noir breakthrough, Blood Simple, with an entirely different but no less satisfying follow-up, Raising Arizona, which plays out like a somewhat broad and inherently silly farce, but with a drop of sweetness in emotion and caring for its nincompoop characters underneath that elevates it to another level. In the latter half of the 1980s, baby flicks were quite popular (Baby Boom, Three Men and a Baby, Look Who's Talking, She's Having a Baby, For Keeps, Adventures in Babysitting and to a darker extent, Labyrinth, Agnes of God, A Cry in the Dark -- heck, there was even one about a baby brontosaurus called, naturally, Baby), and I'd argue that this is the best of them all, at least from the standpoint of not just trying to placate audiences with cloying scenes of baby cuteness.
Nicolas Cage (Valley Girl, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) stars as H.I. (aka, "Hi") McDonnough, a longtime two-bit criminal who gets nabbed heisting so often, he eventually gets to know and romance the booking police officer, Edwina (aka, "Ed" - Hunter, Broadcast News), who has snapped his many mug shots over the years. The couple on both sides of the law end up marrying, and the two move together out to a trailer in the desert brush, as Hi tries to make a legitimate buck and prepare for raising a family. That is, until it is discovered that Ed is unable to have children, and with Hi's criminal record, adoption is far out of the question. Ed is despondent, to the point where, when it is highly publicized that a man named Nathan Arizona (Wilson, Bull Durham), the wealthy owner of a chain of unfinished-furniture stores, has just fathered quintuplets, she and Hi decide that a man who has more children than he can handle could surely do without one. They hatch a scheme to steal an Arizona baby, but find that caring for a child is more than they bargained for, especially when there are so many bad influences around.
With dialogue (including Hi's thoughtful and simple metaphors told in occasional narration) that sparkles with subversively wry witticisms, and a ever-roving use of cameras that evokes The Road Warrior, if done with the visionary eye of colleague Sam Raimi, with punchy cinematography from Barry Sonnenfeld (Throw Momma from the Train, Big) that blends perfectly with the Coens' over-the-top characterizations, Raising Arizona is a real treat for those who enjoy eccentric characters caught up in so-stupid-they're-smart situations. The adept script, which paints its version of Arizona and its personalities that are two shades outside of our known reality, plays its characters for simpletons, but does it so well that the film emerges as one of the smartest of its era.
Its sweetness at its core stems mostly from how folks on the fringes of society can still desire desperately for normalcy, and a way to be a good person, good husband, good father or mother, for the sake and sacrifice of another. The affection for the characters is somewhat counterintuitive, as an exaggeratedly scruffy Nicolas Cage intentionally exhibits little emotion throughout, with face perpetually fixed in a hangdog expression of a life that has completely worn him down. Contrasting him well is Holly Hunter, who is all spitfire and nerves that make her look like she's bursting with emotions trying to get out, and the catalyst that spurs Hi to try to be a good person, even if what they end up doing is very, very wrong. The banjo-tinged, yodel-infused score by Carter Burwell (Psycho III, Barton Fink), his second of many for the Coens, perfectly punctuates not only the rustic feel of this back-country tale, but it is especially effective at embodying the underlying sweetness of what runs most of the time as an outlandish and action-oriented farce.
The supporting cast all contribute to the comedic tone of the piece, as they emerge to threaten the McDonnough plans. First, there is the swinging couple, Glen (McMurray, Christmas Vacation) and Dot (McDormand, Darkman), whose bratty kids run rampant all over the McDonnough's humble abode. Then we have two escaped cons, Evelle (Forsythe, Cloak & Dagger) and Gale (Goodman, Revenge of the Nerds), former cell buddies of Hi, who virtually invade the trailer home and try to get the would-be father to go out for another of their heist schemes. And last, the most threatening of them all, is the seemingly post-apocalyptic coming of a vicious motorcycle-riding bounty hunter, Leonard Smalls, who is there to collect the reward for the return of Nathan Jr. by the Arizonas, played with comedic menace by former heavyweight boxer, Randall 'Tex' Cobb (Police Academy 4, The Golden Child). All of these factions find out about the kidnapping, and see their own reasons to interfere Hi and Ed's chances for happiness.
Raising Arizona is primarily recommended to all Coen Brothers fans, of course, but also to any viewers who enjoy absurdly offbeat and energetic comedies with lots of visual panache. It takes losers and makes them heroes, a theme that the filmmaking siblings would revisit time and again in their future comedies. Fittingly, what could have so easily been an darkly ambitious, overly exaggerated misfire too wild in tone to hold together, ends up being an eminently quotable, hilariously frothy and endearingly delightful comedy classic.
©2013 Vince Leo