RAISING ARIZONA (1987)

  • Director: Joel Coen
  • Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen
  • Starring: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, Frances McDormand, and Randall “Tex” Cobb
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to Cinemax, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The Coen Brothers are a unique phenomenon in the modern movie landscape. Always working together (in their earlier movies, like Raising Arizona, one would be credited as director and the other as producer because of guild rules, but they always wrote, directed, and produced all their movies together), the brothers grew up in suburban Minneapolis, and were never part of the “New Hollywood” boys club that was basically running things at the time they broke in. They have demonstrated huge range over a couple dozen movies, yet they all of their movies have their own unique stamp. All Coen Brothers movies feel like Coen Brothers movies, and nobody else can make one. Fargo is probably the most critically-acclaimed of their movies over the years, The Big Lebowski the most loved, and it was No Country for Old Men that eventually swept the Oscars, but I think Raising Arizona, which came before all of these, might be my favorite. It is pretty definitely the silliest, which is no small reason why.

A common observation is that Raising Arizona is basically a live-action cartoon, a feature-length Looney Tunes with Nicolas Cage instead of Bugs Bunny. So really not so different. Cage, in his broadest mode (and no one has a broader one) plays H.I. McDonough, a compulsive robber with a penchant for big words who spends his life in and out of prison. So much so that he falls in love with the police officer who takes the mug shots, Ed (Holly Hunter) (“short for Edwina!” she yells back to him between instructions to turn to his left). They get married, he resolves to go straight, and they try to start a family. However, she discovers she can’t have children (or, as H.I. puts it, “Her womb was a barren, rocky soil, in which my seed could find no purchase”), and they can’t adopt because of H.I.’s criminal past, so Ed comes up with a scheme to kidnap one of the recently-born “Arizona quintuplets,” reasoning that their parents already have “more than they know what to do with.” Hijinks ensue (I’m not sure that phrase has ever been more appropriate).

The Coens shot this movie like a children’s story, with lots of primary colors. Long periods are given over to complete silliness, including the one that leads to perhaps the movie’s defining image, of Cage running doofily down an Arizona road with a pair of pantyhose over his head and a large package of Huggies under his arm. That sequence involves a pack of dogs, the police, a braces-wearing convenience store clerk with a shotgun, and Ed and the baby driving through walls while the baby cartoonishly covers its eyes. The baby, for all of its mugging at the camera, is pretty much the only character in this movie that doesn’t scream, which seems on purpose. There are many great adult screams to choose from, but my personal favorite is definitely the one delivered by John Goodman, in a truly nuts prison-break scene that somehow pre-dates The Shawshank Redemption by 8 years.

Raising Arizona was only the Coen Brothers’ second commercial movie, after Blood Simple, a fairly serious, cynical neo-noir set in Texas. Hoping to “sell out,” as they’d later put it in interviews, they decided to make their next movie an “upbeat” comedy involving a baby, set in Arizona. Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand, introduced them to her friend Holly Hunter, and the brother decided to write a great part for her. McDormand appears in a smaller role in the movie, as Ed’s friend who is obsessed with babies. Babies were a great way to sell your movie in 1987 (one of the year’s highest-grossers was Three Men and a Baby), but hard to actually shoot. The production eventually went through at least fifteen Phoenix-area acting babies, who were fired as they learned how to walk. As Cage later said in an interview: “They didn’t know they were fired, because they were babies. I sometimes don’t think of babies as human. I mean, they have their own way of looking at things, and I respect them for that. But I know that one day they will grow up and become humans.”

Nicolas Cage is pretty much the best. He had a wide-ranging and fun early career, which he used to transition into basically doing what he wants. This often includes lending credibility to smaller products that might not get made otherwise. Cage’s birth name is “Coppola,” and his is the nephew of the director Francis Ford Coppola. He changed the name because he wanted to prove that he could make it on his own and avoid nepotism. He spends the time when he’s not shooting living in Las Vegas (at a previous house we learned that we went to the same Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf as Cage), where he had a son who he named “Kal-El.” Cage fits very well into a Coen paradigm that can require both subtle, believable emotions and completely over-the-top nonsense.

In Blood Simple, the Coens made a movie that’s really about how there’s a desperate criminal in all of us. Raising Arizona, as they intended, is basically the opposite. It about how desperate criminals are really just like the rest of us, and their desperation comes out of a desire to just be good people. In a lengthy voiceover that starts off the film, Cage notes that he robs convenience stores because he isn’t able to support himself any other way. In what seems like a weird aside, he notes that times are tough because of President Reagan. But even then he’s sure to note, “I always thought he was a good man. His advisers must have been confused.” Even when blaming his situation on politicians, H.I. can’t bring himself to ascribe bad motivations to anyone. 

This even extends to the villain of the movie, the “Biker of the Apocalypse” (Randall “Tex” Cobb, a former boxer) presented as a hulking force of nature who also likes to randomly blow up bunnies with hand grenades. When Cage eventually gets the better of the biker, he quietly and tells the guy, “sorry…” just before the man explodes in a huge fireball. This is a movie about people who do very bad things (like kidnap babies), but do them for basically good reasons. At least in their own minds. It is important that H.I. never actually loads the gun he points during his robberies. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt,” he says sincerely to the parole board, as one of them turns the phrase “repeat offender” into a four-course meal.

Raising Arizona was criticized by some at the time who didn’t seem to understand what they heck they were looking at. The Chicago Tribune called it “an episode of Hee-Haw directed by an amphetamine-crazed Orson Welles.” If I’m honest, that sounds like something I’d really like to watch, and maybe the disconnects as simple as that. But it’s also true that, over the years, the Coen Brothers have put out so many great movies that they’ve earned the trust of critics and the moviegoing public, and so it’s in retrospect to follow them down some weird roads. Raising Arizona’s road may be weird, but it’s a comforting drive.

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