Raising Arizona (1987)

One line review: The original ROFL.

The Coen brothers’ highly anticipated next outing after their debut hit, Blood Simple, defies all expectations. If Blood Simple was dark, this movie is giddy light. If Blood Simple’s characters were smart two-timers, this film’s characters ooze goodness but are sadly let down by their sub-par brains, much to our delight.  

 The film is narrated by the protagonist, H.I McDunnough, or Hi ( Nicholas Cage). Hi is a serial convenience store robber, and therefore a frequent prison inmate. Hi meets and falls in love with Ed (Holly Hunter), a high-strung prison officer in charge of taking mugshots. He decides to mend his ways, marries Ed, and hopes to ride into the sunset. But Ed, whose biggest dream is to have a baby, cannot have one ( as Hi says, Ed’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase; one of the film’s many quotable lines). Opportunity knocks at the TV door when they hear about the Arizona quintuplets born to furniture magnate Nathan Arizona who remarks he has more babies than he can handle. Thinking it’s a win-win situation, Hi and Ed decide to lighten Nathan Arizona’s burden by taking one of the babies (Nathan Jr), but as expected, things don’t go as planned. Hi’s old prison mates, the Snoats brothers (John Goodman and William Forsythe), escape prison and are the unwelcome and increasingly suspicious guests at the Hi household, threatening to upset their “single-family unit” (Ed’s words). Throw in Hi’s supervisor, who has designs on both Ed and the baby; Hi’s alter ego: the evil biker, Smalls; Nathan Arizona’s reward for his missing baby, and you have a mad caper that takes off like a car without brakes. But it ends happily, with everyone back where they belong: the baby with his parents, Hi and Ed with each other, the Snoats brothers willingly back in prison, and biker Smalls in heaven, or is it hell? 

The Coens clearly conceived the film as a cartoon. But they could not have brought it to life in film with just their cracking screenplay. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (tip of the hat to the long shot ending in the mouth of a screaming Mrs. Nathan Arizona), editor Michael Miller (the chase scene is an ode to sublime editing; Coens usually edit their own films), and the rollicking score by Carter Burwell, all play essential roles in realizing the Coens’ vision. Carter Burwell says the yodeling score lets audiences know that no matter how badly they screw up, the film’s characters will be just fine, like Bugs Bunny. 

Of course, none of the above would work without the raw material: the performances. The totally disarming Nicholas Cage, who auditioned twenty-plus times for the role, digs so deep into his harebrained character that you laugh even when he just furrows his eyebrows. Cage’s performance is a masterclass in slapstick. He modeled his character on Woody Woodpecker and even tattooed the thrush muffler on his arm. He would also mess up his hair to look like Woody Woodpecker. The perfect foil to him is Holly Hunter, whose gigantic emotions rule her actions and poor life choices. If the film were released today, her crying scenes would rule the memes.

Trey Wilson, as the sly businessman Nathan Alexander has some of the film’s best lines: with chairs, you got a dinette set; without chairs, you got a dick. Surprisingly, despite his one-dimensional money-mindedness, he’s the one who redeems Hi and Ed, reminding them they couldn’t be that bad people if they voluntarily returned his baby. Trust the Coens to end an otherwise mindless film on a profound philosophical note. It hits home even more because it comes from the mouth of a heartless businessman. John Goodman is reliable as ever, while William Forsythe is scary good as the man child who can fly off the handle any moment despite his soft exterior. If anyone in the film killed someone, it would be him. Nathan Jr has the toughest role because he has to look adorable enough to make so many people fighting over him look convincing, and he does. Even characters who make fleeting appearances are unforgettable. The pimply, teeth with braces store clerk, the screaming driver who does such a good job you almost see his tonsils, Hi’s prison cellmate on the top bunk, the store clerk who has to count up and down; the list is endless. 

Why watch it? To have a jolly good time and to be reminded that pure comedy is timeless.   

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