“Raising Arizona” is easily among Joel and Ethan Coen’s most accessible, simplistically entertaining features.
Baby crazy husband and wife team H.I. and Ed McDunnough (Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter) would be about as successful in parenthood as Michael and Dina Lohan, but they’re ill-equipped when it comes to understanding their own ineptness as functioning members of society. Wanting to emulate Lucy and Desi post-Lucie as best they can in light of their recent marriage, they’re fervent in their determination to become mom and pop to a cherub of a tot.
Newlyweds linked together by chance — they meet for the first time when Ed, a police officer, is tasked with taking H.I.’s mugshots after he robs a convenience store — the happy couple settles down quickly, playing house in a banged-up mobile home placed smack dab in the middle of the desert. With prospects mostly nonexistent, the twosome decides that having kids is the very first task they’re going to tend to as man and wife.
Months into trying to make conception a thing, however, devastating news makes way. Despite looking “as fertile as the Tennessee Valley,” Ed discovers that she is unable to have children. Adoption seems a viable option, but thanks to H.I.’s prolific criminal record, the government understandably refuses to see the duo as capable guardians. So the McDunnoughs find themselves in a marital bind. They want to raise a son or a daughter so badly they can almost taste it, but when they come to realize that that dream can never come true, their bliss starts to unravel.
Until they reach the sort of misguided epiphany only characters of their manic desperation could latch onto. After becoming familiar with the “Arizona Quints,” the five infant sons of nearby furniture giant Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), a sort of lightbulb flickers above their delusional heads.
Figuring that five kids is probably too many for one couple to handle, H.I. and Ed convince themselves that kidnapping one of the babies, Nathan, Jr., will be both a favor to themselves and to the Arizonas. They’ll get to be the quasi-Nuclear Family they’ve been dying to mirror, and the Arizonas will now only have four babies to feed and bathe and love. It’s a win-win situation in their despairing minds.
But the McDunnoughs inadvertently fall into deeper trouble the second they bring Nathan home. H.I.’s old prison bunkmates, Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe), escape from the slammer and crash their humble abode. The Arizonas launch an exhaustive search and rescue mission that prompts cartoonishly tough bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) to try to get his dirty hands on Nathan, Jr. first and claim the reward money being offered himself. Flirtations with crime reappear after H.I. stupidly tries to rob a minute mart while out buying Huggies one night. Catching a break, it seems, is not something the McDunnoughs’ can easily nab.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, filmmakers who had announced themselves as impressively idiosyncratic artists just two years previously with morally corrupt crime drama “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona” is an incredibly physical (and incredibly funny) slapstick comedy which simultaneously possesses a profoundly sad core that renders it as being much more than a flashy lark. Though recalling the punchiness of a Buster Keaton vehicle and the carefully constructed chaos of a classic Preston Sturges comedy, the film moves us in a way Harold Lloyd never could.
The central characters are kooky and the situations they get themselves into are fit for any screwball caper, but they aren’t two-dimensionally nutty: they are, instead, eccentric as a result of their respective desperation reaching astonishingly high heights. Perhaps the Coens’ flamboyant visual style, encapsulating the images and movements which come to mind when being told a tall tale, makes the movie more frenzied than humanistically substantial. But if the Coens filtered “Raising Arizona” through the lens of a melodrama or a character study, in no doubt would the story work just as well. It’s elastic, essentially, able to be equal parts batshit and melancholy and always feel just about right.
But more striking is how well developed the Coens’ personal style is characterized in “Raising Arizona.” In the three decades they’ve been among America’s preeminent filmmakers, most have familiarized themselves with their affectations and their artistic leanings, and how they can meld their inclinations into roughly three genres: farce (“The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Burn After Reading”), bleak drama (“Blood Simple,” “No Country For Old Men,” “True Grit”), and tragicomedy (“Barton Fink,” “A Serious Man,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”).
“Raising Arizona” falls under the farce category within their oeuvre, and it sets the tone for the romps that would come later. But the mastery displayed here is a rarity when it comes to filmmakers in the early stages of their career. How dialogue can be this distinctive, how camerawork can be this animalistic, how set design can be this Americana cum fantastical, and how sequences of comedy can be so immaculately designed is a marvel. Watching the work of the Coens remains to be such a thrill because they seem to be just as thrilled by what they’re offering as we are.
Cage and Hunter and their magnificent cohort of supporting actors are just as exceptional as the men directing them. Cage, here a scruffy fuck-up who always looks like he just woke up from one of those six-hour naps good enough to make you forget who you are, charms as a low-life who’s sweeter than apple pie and yet cannot stop himself from getting into trouble. Hunter is perpetually at a crossroads between chipper and unhinged, making her the movie’s most sympathetic character. Her Ed is so comprehensively vulnerable it’s a wonder that she only breaks into tears only once during the film’s 94 minutes.
Scenes, of course, are stolen by Coen regulars John Goodman and Frances McDormand. In the film, Goodman’s a dim-witted crook with a fondness for saying “yee-haw!” when things finally go his way, and McDormand’s a grating domestic type who insists on incessantly talking about vaccinations as her moronic husband (Sam McMurray) drones on about the sensitivity of his sperm. Wilson’s also uproarious, a firecracker who can’t seem to stop himself from reminding someone that they’re going straight to heck if they even make one moral mistake.
Not a thing about “Raising Arizona” isn’t colorfully berserk, but it never stoops down to the preciousness that can sometimes come along with whimsy. It’s easily among the Coens’ most accessible, most simplistically entertaining features. Admixing their admirable comic instincts with their visual savvy, a nimble script the foundation of it all, “Raising Arizona” is a comic masterpiece.