The Coen brothers are some of the best, most consistent writers/directors out there. Whether they’re making a comedy full of quirky characters or a drama, they just make completely engaging movies (let’s disregard The Ladykillers). Raising Arizona, which was only their second movie, shows they already had this down to a science.
H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) is a completely incompetent convenience store robber who ends up in prison three times before the film’s title even shows. There, he falls in love with Ed (Holly Hunter), and ends up marrying her. When they try to have a child and it turns out Ed is infertile, they decide to kidnap a baby from furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), since he has quintuplets, and after all, he’s not going to miss one of them, is he?
I don’t think Nicolas Cage had fallen into his type yet, but he’s definitely playing against his modern-day image here. Anybody compared to seeing Nicolas Cage in movies like The Wicker Man or Ghost Rider will be shocked to see him as a likeable, if completely incompetent redneck. His character is simultaneously funny and sweet. He robs a convenience store with an unloaded gun in an attempt to get diapers. He’s far from the sharpest knife in the drawer, but still a good person at heart.
The real greatness of the movie is the big comedy scenes. The aforementioned robbery turns into a huge sprawling action sequence that goes through the neighborhood and to a grocery store, with H.I. being pursued by the cops, the convenience store owner, and a pack of dogs. It’s madcap comedy at its finest, making sure that every element that’s brought up comes back when it’s funniest. And then they also turn it down, like when Nathan is being interviewed by the police. It’s a small-scale scene in comparison, but it’s still hilarious just thanks to the ridiculous events that are going on. It does go a little over-the-top with the introduction of Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb), a crazy manhunter who’s trying to take the baby back, even if he has to kill H.I. and Ed. It’s purely ridiculous, and yet it still leads to a hilarious action-comedy sequence.
And yet it can still dial it all the way to just touching. There’s this feeling that H.I. and Ed really do want to care for the baby, even if they have no idea how to do it right. The film also concludes with an absolutely sweet epilogue from H.I., which straddles the line between what actually happens and what could happen. The audience, of course, wants it to be true, but it could just be a dream. Do things really turn out happily for the good characters, and do the bad characters get their just desserts? There’s always that question.
Raising Arizona may not have the polish the later Coen brothers movies have, and the DVD release is downright atrocious (it was framed by black bars on all sides on my TV). But it’s definitely a must-see for anybody who loves the Coen brothers’ current works.