There are few directors out there who began their careers as impressively as Joel and Ethan Coen. They started off with a bang in 1987 with Blood Simple, and haven’t really quit since. That first film was a seedy, scary crime thriller. Their follow up, a mere three years later, was Raising Arizona, a comedy with a spectacular script, cast, and atmosphere that established the off-kilter, just-quirky-enough vibe that would come to define much of the brothers’ movies for the rest of their career.
In the overall scope of the Coens’ unbelievable career, Raising Arizona tends to get overlooked in favor of their later, higher-profile movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? or The Big Lebowski. That’s a shame, since I think it’s probably the funniest, sweetest movie these two have ever produced. Unlike Lebowski, which uses humor to illustrate the stupidity of its characters, Raising Arizona is endearingly funny, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Raising Arizona is a comfort movie. It’s what you should watch when you’ve had a hard week, and all you want to do is sit down, unwind, and laugh, without totally compromising your intelligence and popping in, say, anything with Will Ferrell in it. Arizona is a heartfelt movie about relationships and family that also manages to be funny as hell. It also looks incredible, thanks in no small part to its American Southwest landscape.
Hi McDunnough (Nicolas Cage, before he became a national punchline) is a small-time crook who can’t seem to stay out of jail. One day at the police station, he meets Ed (Holly Hunter), a cop in charge of processing. Hi falls in love, and eventually reforms and convinces Ed to marry him. Ed and Hi want to start a family, but can’t, due to Ed’s infertility, so the couple steals a baby from a local furniture magnate whose wife recently birthed quintuplets. Of course, raising a kid isn’t as easy as it might first seem, especially when a couple of Hi’s criminal buddies break out of the joint, and the baby’s parents issue a hefty reward for the return of their little angel.
Understandably so–the kid is really stinkin’ cute.
If that setup sounds a bit like a screwball comedy, you’d be right. Arizona is all outrageous situations and larger-than-life characters, but with that signature Coen touch of having one foot planted in reality. The laughs come fast and heavy, but the total lovability of the characters keeps things from getting too off-the-wall.
Cage gets to use his manic powers for good by making Hi an often confused but devoted husband who wants to do right, but has a hard time sticking to the straight and narrow. As Ed, Holly Hunter gives a crackerjack performance, showing without a doubt who wears the pants in the relationship, and just how desperate she is to start a family. The cast is rounded out by a plethora of excellent character actors (including early turns from later Coen regulars Frances McDormand and John Goodman) who simply add their own particular brand of awesome to the mix.
Holly Hunter reeeeeeally wants that baby.
Raising Arizona is a great early example of why the filmmaking community respects Joel and Ethan Coen so much. It’s a very entertaining movie that just about anyone can enjoy. But it’s also a smart, well-made movie created by a pair of very capable filmmakers, despite the fact that this was only their second film, and the first one with any kind of major budget. Your copy of Lebowski is getting worn out. You know it is. So this weekend, when you need something to watch, why not give this a spin instead? You’ll be glad you did.
Take a Drink: every time you hear the phrase “Or my name ain’t Nathan Arizona.”
Do a Shot: every time you see the woodpecker tattoo.
When the Arizona Quints show up together: Take Five Successive Drinks
Take a Drink: at any reference made to “huggies.”
Take a Drink: every time a shopkeeper breaks out a gun