I might be wrong, but I think, at this point, the only directors that I have reviewed for this blog as often as the Coen Brothers are Woody Allen and David Lean. It’s not an intentional decision by any means; these directors have just made an exceptionally large number of films and they were almost all critically acclaimed. I’ve reviewed so many Coen films at this point that I would have to open up my list of every movie I’ve reviewed (all 360 or so) just to pick them all out. I bring this up because, despite their occasional flaws and pretenses as filmmakers, the Coens are arguably the most versatile and multifaceted writer/directors of the modern era, and their early screwball classic, Raising Arizona, is ample proof of why.
Raising Arizona is arguably the closest the Coens have ever come to doing a straight comedy. Although I think that The Big Lebowski is the second greatest American comedy ever made (behind Annie Hall), it twists and turns in its post-modernist nihilism and genre-bending so much that no one could ever call it a straight comedy. But Raising Arizona is classic screwball and slapstick in the vein of My Man Godfrey or The Philadelphia Story. Relying on the insanity of its characters and a constantly escalating series of mishaps that snowball towards the film’s climax, Raising Arizona is a loving (if subversive) throwback to the classic comedies of yore, and honestly, nobody has made them like this since.
H.I. McDunnough (Adaptation.‘s Nic Cage) is an unrepentant bandit. Robbing gas stations (with an unloaded gun to avoid armed robbery charges), H.I. is in and out of prison with an astonishing regularity. However, when he catches the eye of ex-cop Ed (Jesus’ Son‘s Holly Hunter), he vows to get his life back on the straight and narrow. The two two marry and move into a trailer in the middle of the Arizona desert. H.I. gets a job at a sheet metal factory, and everything seems to be back on the up and up, until H.I. and Edwina decide to have a baby. But, when Ed discovers that she’s incapable of getting pregnant, their lives begin to fall back apart.
Potential salvation comes in the form of news that a local furniture salesman, the titular Arizona, has had quintuplets with his wife. Getting it into their head that the Arizona family now has more children than they can manage, Ed and H.I. believe that they’ll be doing the Arizonas a favor if they take one of the babies off their hands. And, so, H.I. kidnaps little Nathan Jr. and he and Ed hope to raise the baby as their own. But when two of H.I.’s old cell mates break out of prison (including an excellent John Goodman) and show up on his doorstep, their plans immediately spin out off control and the arrival of a psychotic bounty hunter only make things worse.
Although part of me suspects that Raising Arizona has some very minor pacing problems (during its 90 minute running time, there were little moments here and there where my mind began to wander), the movie is still, then, thankfully full of classic comedy bits. Whether it’s early in the film when H.I. is trying to decide which of the Arizona quints to steal as they start scattering all over their house, or a gas station robbery gone horribly, horribly south, or any other of a number of gag-fueled scenes, Raising Arizona earns its reputation as one of the true cult comedy classics of the 1980s by keeping the laughs coming consistently from beginning to end.
I’ve brought this up so many times now for this blog that it almost seems dumb to say it again, but here goes. Nic Cage has completely destroyed any credibility he had as an actor this last decade or so, but Raising Arizona reminds me of why he should have been one of the biggest stars of his time. He has a natural comic timing, and he has inhabited so many zany and eccentric characters over the year that it’s a shame he decided to play an endless series of the same type of character in mainstream action duds. Holly Hunter was also hysterical as the appropriately emotionally hysterical Ed, and I’ll actually be watching another Holly Hunter classic later this week, The Incredibles. So, I’m excited for that.
I could go on at length about how this film is also a perfect snapshot of 1980s Americana and a commentary on the economic angst of Reagan’s America, but I’m hungry so I’m going to draw this review to a close. If you’re looking for a witty and endlessly clever comedy to whittle away the hours today, I’m not sure if you could do much worse than Raising Arizona. It was one of the films that shot the Coen brothers onto the map, and while it may not be one of my favorite films of theirs (it’s impressive that a film as great as this doesn’t crack the top 5 for a director), it’s still one of the best comedies of the 1980s.
Final Score: A-