Starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Whilst it is not generally a good thing to rely on the opinions of others before formulating ones own, there are a very select few film critics whose views I tend to seek, out of curiosity, after watching a movie, regardless of whether I intend to write about it. The late, great Roger Ebert, in his review of "Raising Arizona" at the time of the film's release in 1987, was, a little surprisingly, rather bearish, criticising it for not knowing what it wanted to be, saying that it "cannot decide if it is about real people, or comic exaggerations." Humour, in other words, doen't work if the viewer can't grasp its setting. Having always regarded this second feature from the Coen Brothers fondly, I saw it recently for the first time in many years, and was pleasantly surprised still to find it very funny. Evidently, I just "get" it.
Vastly different in tone to their debut, the modern-day noir "Blood Simple", which in itself might have confounded some expectations, this is a fast-paced, surreal, dream-like comedy, about a serial Convenience store holdup man H.I McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and his eventual wife, Police Officer Ed - Edwina - (Holly Hunter). I say eventual, because there plays out a hysterical 10 minute prologue which documents a good few years of their relationship, as H.I repeatedly shows up at prison, is paroled, only to return again every few months and inch their relationship further along. It contains some awesome scenes of H.I in prison ("We ate sand"), before true love takes its course ("I'm walkin' in here on my knees Ed, a free man proposin'"). The couple are childless ("Edwina's insides were a rocky place, where my seed could find no purchase"), living in a trailer in the Arizona desert; they learn one day that one of the wealthiest businessmen in the state - Nathan Arizona, of "Unpainted Arizona" furniture - has just fathered a veritable brood of children, sextuplets, so they hatch a plan to steal one for themselves. He won't miss one, surely?
What follows is a series of hilarious and frankly timeless set-pieces. H.I's attempt to steal a child is initially thwarted when the various babies escape from their cot and he has to chase them from cupboards and out from under beds, giving rise to the first instance of "baby-cam", the camera shooting along the floor at ground level from the baby's eye view. He eventually gets them all back to their cot but returns empty handed to Ed, whose furious reaction is a sight to see. When they finally do procure an "offspring" there are a hatful of great scenes and great lines as they try to get to grips with parenthood. Things are complicated when two of H.I's old prison buddies, the wonderfully named Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe) break out of the joint ("We felt that the institution no longer had anything to offer us") and turn up at the trailer, covered in sewage, and immediately dubious as to the origins of H.I and Ed's new addition to the family. Throw into the mix an avenging, cigar chomping biker bounty hunter, Leonard Smalls (Randall 'Tex' Cobb), the kind of guy who throws hand grenades at innocent roadside critters as he barrels down the highways, and you have quite a cocktail.
The set pieces are brilliantly staged, such as when the Snoats steal Nathan Jr and head off to rob a local Savings & Loan bank, reluctantly arguing and then agreeing that they have to take the baby with them rather than leave him in the car. The gags have legs - in the robbery, the brothers burst into the bank and yell "Alright you hayseeds, it's a stickup. Everybody down on the ground! Nobody move!" to which, after an embarrassed silence, a crusty octogenarian-looking farmer embarrasses them by saying "Well which is it young feller? You want I should freeze, or get down on the ground? Mean to say, if I freeze I can't rightly drop. And if I drop, I'm a-gonna be in motion. You see...?" So the comedy is eccentric, but it's human and affords an unusual affection to its targets, and - like the parole board H.I. repeatedly faces in his series of prison spells - deeply and inherently tolerant of a string of flawed individuals. It's impossible not to like, if one has a heart. Perhaps the standout is another extended sequence in which a desperate and downcast H.I. reverts to his ways of larceny, holding up a 24 hour store for a packet of Huggies. Pursued by a pistol-wielding pimply store employee, a vicious dog, and some trigger-happy cops, H.I. runs around the neighbourhood and even through homes, in a funny and thrilling foot-chase which recalls the one from "Point Break". But it's jaunty. And the best part is that H.I. manages to retrieve the Huggies, previously dropped, as the getaway is finally made.
I have generally found that the Coens' "serious" films - "Fargo", "No Country for Old Men" - are mildly weaker than when they play this oddball comic sensibility to its extreme, such as here, or in "The Hudsucker Proxy", or "O Brother Where Art Thou?". Not entirely true, of course, as "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "True Grit" are fantastic, and even "Inside Llewyn Davis" was amusing, but I think they're better when indulging their off kilter sensibilities. "Raising Arizona" has a frenetic sensibility, a sense of roughly ordered chaos which leaps out from the screen. It's paced so superbly that it seldom lets up, and sweeps one up in the mayhem. Hunter is beautifully uptight throughout, intolerant of those around her in her desperate need to have the perfect family. Nic Cage is often described as "hangdog" and perhaps never more so displays that characteristic than here; he conveys the sense that H.I. really wants to do well and be a good man, husband and father, but that fate confounds him at every turn, as he tolerates the asinine humour of his supervisor Glen (Sam McMurray), browbeating at the hands of Ed, and repeated misfortune. Goodman and Forsythe are so un-selfaware that they're hysterical, Trey Wilson is such a no-nonsense, fast-talking businessman that it would be easy not to feel sympathy for his loss - in fact that almost seems encouraged at times, but one does (particularly in the final scene, and also because he has many great one-liners) - whilst Cobb is a brilliant beast seldom seen on screen.
Of course, this is all horrendous. Stealing a baby? Inhuman. But somehow, with its jaunty banjo soundtrack, it doesn't seem so bad. It's like "Gone Baby Gone" - but with jokes. And banjos. Years before that film was made. But you get the point. As Cage's wistful voiceover plays out over the final scene, in which he imagines a family he might have with Ed in the future, and how Nathan Jr might grow up playing high school football, the film is lent a poignancy it might otherwise not have had. It's moving and funny, and makes the film well worth catching.