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Raising Arizona (1987)

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Score: 10/10

Genre: Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.

Release Date: April 17th, 1987 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen Actors: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Frances McDormand, Sam McMurray

W

ild-haired, simple, and single-minded repeat convict H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) is in and out of Maricopa County lockup in Tempe, Arizona, for continuing to rob convenience stores. He blames Reagan in the White House among other things for his delinquency. Finding a kind of solace in the camaraderie of jail, he eventually feels the pain of imprisonment when he imagines himself with pretty young Edwina “Ed” Mucket (Holly Hunter), the police officer in charge of booking and photographing him each time he’s arrested.

When H.I. is released for the last time – his lawless days behind him – he asks for Ed’s hand in marriage, and she enthusiastically accepts. After a few good years, with thoughts of a child as the next step in their relationship, the couple is saddened to discover Ed is barren. Adoption is also out of the question, with H.I.’s checkered past. It seems that biology and the prejudices of others conspire to keep them childless.

When the news of Nathan (Trey Wilson) and Florence (Lynne Dumin Kitei) Arizona’s recently born quintuplets greets the McDunnoughs, who are now quite desperate to create a family, they plot to steal one of the babies. After all, the Arizonas have more than they can handle. One successful kidnapping later and H.I. and Ed are all set to raise the snatched toddler as if it’s a prized possession or a new toy, complete with instruction manual. They’re completely clueless, but have the best intentions. Then, brothers Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe) Snoats, two escaped convicts, visit the happy new household, bringing with them a piece of the past and a grim sense of foreboding. The Arizona family expectedly panics when they discover their missing child and resorts to hiring a filthy, brutish bounty hunter (Randall “Tex” Cobb) to track down the purloined infant.

“Raising Arizona” uses extremely exaggerated, purposely over-the-top characters to paint a vivid tale of unlikely heroes and allegorical villains. The outstanding cast, led by the inimitable Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, also includes many notable supporting roles. John Goodman and William Forsythe are at the top of the list as wanted men, introduced with impressive symbolism of childbirth during a muddy prison escape, like a comedic precursor to “The Shawshank Redemption’s” most iconic scene. Goodman provides the brawn between the pair of relatively scatter-brained thugs, who intermittently spout knowledgeable revelations at unlikely times, as if materialized consciences a la Jiminy Cricket. Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray join them, outrageously representing the worst possibilities for family life, including feelings of constant restrictions, second guessing affections, and raising kids to be monsters.

Behind all the obvious jokes and dark humor there is a poignant message about overcoming one’s own demons. The biker that terrorizes H.I.’s dreams reveals a roadrunner tattoo that is identical to his own, manifesting his inner turmoil and the constant battle to overcome doubts about his abilities as a father, a husband, and a decent human being. The biker is in many ways H.I.’s futuristic alternate personality. He must also combat the influences of his prison friends, who convince him to be true to his nature and return to criminal endeavors. The final monologue that resonates over a positive, possible destiny, acknowledges long-awaited acceptance of his situation and the improvements that will undoubtedly occur with his ceaseless determination to be a better person. The entire film seemingly flees reality, creating a sense of surrealism and artistic representations amidst fun, silly action.

With great music that cleverly contrasts the activities at hand (most popular is the Sons of the Pioneers yodel), creative framing, unique choreography, absolutely hilarious dialogue, and splendid adventure (one chase scene in particular combines all of the aforementioned techniques as H.I. sprints through the town, eluding police, intent on securing a package of diapers for “Jr.”), the Coen Brothers have succeeded once again in creating a highly original film and an eccentric take on slapstick and situation comedy. Everything is tinged with sarcasm, sometimes overflowing into laugh-out-loud hilarity, including the humorous and oftentimes cartoon-like violence. “Raising Arizona” is a delightfully singular, strikingly bizarre, and unquestionably hysterical cult comedy – and only the second feature by the filmmaking brothers, already demonstrating a knack for pictures with lasting power and immense potential.

– Mike Massie

 



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