Never ones to rest on their laurels, Joel and Ethan Coen followed their exercise in stylistic deadpan Blood Simple with one of the looniest comedies on God’s green earth. For Serious Coens (okay, sometimes only semi-serious), I take down my DVD of Miller’s Crossing; for Wacky Coens, I throw on either The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona. I can never decide which of the two is funnier; it depends largely on which one I’ve seen most recently, and, cheesy as it is to imagine it, I’d love to see a team-up between Jeff Bridges’ Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski and Nicolas Cage’s H.I. “Hi” McDonnough — I challenge any Coens fan not to indulge that imaginary movie premise for a moment.
Raising Arizona is amiably gonzo pretty much nonstop. In the wrong hands, that could be irritating or, at the very least, miss the mark (I refer you to the little-seen Crimewave, written by the Coens with their friend Sam Raimi, and directed by Raimi, for an example of a screwball farce that’s fun enough but strains too hard for true inspiration). But the Coens’ first smart move is to have the story told by Hi in a sober, hilariously fancy narration (“Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase”); their second smart move is to make everyone onscreen as colorful as M. Emmet Walsh’s Loren Visser in Blood Simple.
Hi, a repeat offender (he holds up convenience stores with an unloaded shotgun), is seen at the beginning going through the legal system three times, gradually falling in love with Edwina (Ed for short), the police officer who takes his mug shot. Holly Hunter does her tiny-determined-tough-woman bit as Ed, but she’s seldom done it better; when it turns out, after Hi and Ed have married, that she can’t get pregnant, Ed decides to steal one of the famous “Arizona Quints” fathered by local furniture-outlet owner Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). Hi, of course, will be the one doing the stealing, and when he initially backs down, Hunter’s knife-edge tone of voice tells you (and Hi) that they’re not leaving until Ed gets what she came for.
At home with the stolen quintuplet, Hi and Ed try to work up the semblance of a normal family, but their bubble is soon popped by two visitors: the brothers Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe), Hi’s buddies from prison, who have escaped. The brothers are seen briefly in the pre-credits sequence, but their true introduction is the rising-from-the-muck scene, a parody of prison-escape numbers later redone (earnestly) in The Shawshank Redemption. Gale and Evelle represent the criminal lifestyle Hi wants to leave behind but half wants to fall back into; Ed knows this and disdains the brothers on sight. In his dreams, Hi is also pursued by what appears to be a creature of his conscience — a burly biker (Randall “Tex” Cobb), frequently seen riding out of a flaming background, who turns out to be a shady character hired by Nathan to track down his baby.
This was the second of three movies that future director Barry Sonnenfeld would shoot for the Coens, and it’s by far the most Raimi-esque. The camera rockets around gleefully but also knows when to sit still for a comic-effect static shot of, say, an expressionless Hi sitting next to a bawling Ed at the doctor’s office (her sadness isn’t funny, but the composition is). The Coens, taking their cue from the camera moves, encourage almost everyone to play very broadly. Frances McDormand shows more personality in five minutes as Ed’s know-it-all friend Dot than she did in the entirety of Blood Simple; John Goodman, in his first of several Coen outings, spends a lot of time bellowing but also knows what to do with lines like (in explanation of why he and Evelle escaped) “We felt the institution no longer had anything to offer us.” And the late, great Trey Wilson steals every frame he’s in — Nathan’s impatient tirade against the FBI (“They were jammies! They had Yodas an’ shit on ’em!”) is a classic.
The one performer who plays it more or less straight is, ironically, Nicolas Cage. Given an absurd character with a goofy hairdo and sad mustache, and deposited in the middle of a henhouse of loons, Cage really has no choice but to play against the movie’s crackpot reality. Cage has the gift of being soulful and sincere no matter how crappy the movie is, and here he’s like a rebuke to the critics who took the makers of Blood Simple to task for being heartless. Hi is a romantic (if dopey) figure, and the movie laughs at everything else but him; the Coens respect his dreams of a settled life, though, of course, they can’t help throwing loud roadblocks in his way. Raising Arizona is probably the gentlest movie the Coens have in them, and at least half its gentleness comes from Nicolas Cage’s sleepy drawl, as when he introduces his stolen child to the TV: “Two hours a day maximum, either educational or football so’s you don’t ruin your appreciation of the finer things.”