Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter
Review by Andrew Rowe
When a childless couple of an ex-con and an ex-cop decide to help themselves to one of another family’s quintupelets, their lives get more complicated than they anticipated.
10 minutes, that’s how long Raising Arizona rolls until the title card hits. If this sounds odd it is, but so is everything else about the Coen Brothers’ second film. As they’ve often done throughout their career, the brothers normally follow-up a serious film with a comedy. Fargo led to The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men led to Burn After Reading. With Raising Arizona the brothers had just come from the neo-noir Blood Simple, their first ever film. Where as that film dealt with deception and murder in the shadows of Texas, Raising Arizona basks in the sun with non-stop slapstick, silly fun.
Nicholas Cage stars as Hi, or H.I. if you’re talking to his friends. He’s a petty criminal who has a thing for robbing convenience stores with ammo-less guns. Because he doesn’t use armed weapons his jail sentences are always small in length, which allows for multiple visits. During these multiple visits he meets Ed, a policewoman played by Holly Hunter. Ed’s fiance leaves her, which opens up the door for Hi to reform and win her heart. This is when the Raising Arizona title card hits.
The unlikely couple moves into a trailer in the desert and realize they need something more in their life because they have too much love to give. After multiple attempts of conception, they learn that Ed is unable to bare children and due to Hi’s criminal record, unable to adopt. Devastated, hope arrives in the form of the ‘Arizona Quints’, 5 boys that are born to a locally famous unpainted furniture storeowner, Nathan Arizona.
Hi and Ed decide that abducting one of the boys for themselves is a good idea and do so. After welcoming the child into their home, Hi and Ed are greeted by two of Hi’s friends from prison, Gale and Evelle, John Goodman, and William Forsythe. The two inmates have broken out of prison because the institution no longer had anything to offer them. Against Ed’s wishes, the two fugitives stay at their home where they begin to influence Hi.
At this same time a heavily armed bounty hunter by the name of Leonard Smalls, “My friends call me Lenny… only I ain’t got no friends”, is on the hunt for the child. Blowing up bunny rabbits with grenades, Leonard is fear itself. Gale and Evelle eventually learn of the child’s actual identity and decide to turn him in for the reward money. Everyone collides on a strip in the middle of the desert highway that involves a bank robbery, gunfire, hand-to-hand combat, screeching tires, and a large explosion.
The script, written by the Coens possesses their trademark tongue-in-cheek dialogue as well as an explosive climax and slow burn denouement. No one writes stupid characters like the Coens do. These people that inhabit the film aren’t very bright, and it’s hard to believe anyone in the world could be of this level of intelligence, but the Coens draw you in, first making the world they live in real, then the characters, then the silly things they do. Besides the charming dialogue, there are so many ridiculous sight gags that you may not even catch them all the first time around.
Raising Arizona is arguably the craziest movie the Coen Brother’s have made in their three-decade career, and that’s saying a lot. The film acts as a live-action Saturday morning cartoon. Working for the second time with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld who had shot their debut film Blood Simple, the visuals on screen are closer to a Dr. Seuss book than any of the current film adaptations. Using his trademark wide angles, everything remains in focus allowing the viewer to fully appreciate the immaculate Art Direction. The camera also moves with the action at the right time giving certain scenes a feeling that the camera is a character in the film, namely a chase scene through a house, and a fistfight between two characters.
The actors do a tremendous job of bringing these cartoon characters to life. John Goodman who would go on to work with the Coens several more times is perfect as Gale, the harder of the two brothers and number one bad influence on Hi. Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter have great comedic chemistry and give weight to characters that otherwise wouldn’t have much soul. Hi may just be a dummy, but he’s a dummy with a large heart that wants nothing more than for his Ed to be happy. He is like Bugs Bunny mixed with Wilde Coyote, he’ll get away from Elmer Fudd only to celebrate and have an anvil fall on his head. Randall “Tex” Cobb is a towering inferno on wheels, and makes lighting a match look almost as cool as Clint Eastwood.
It’s of course the Coens that bring it all together. The characters all seem real in this colorful world they’ve created. The slapstick is done wonderfully and gives you a nostalgic feeling of when these Buster Keaton-style comedies were king. It’s just a really fun movie that’ll have you laughing and shaking your head in tandem. This film is also the Coen’s most family friendly; it is almost Disney-like in some aspects.
The film’s innocence is something rarely seen in today’s crop of comedies as well as in the Coen’s filmography. It doesn’t feature as dark of humor or the violence that comes with most Coen Brothers’ films, but here that’s a good thing. The film is a great little gem that shouldn’t be missed.
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