Raising Arizona may be a 20th Century Fox film, but there can be no doubt that it paved the way for the indie comedy as we know it today – you know the type: quirky, smart, fast and loaded with irony. There were times during he film, in fact, when I couldn’t believe this came out in 1987; it pioneered such an archetype for contemporary filmmakers, primarily Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers themselves (who made Arizona), that for this reason alone it should be considered a American classic.
But it as marked the end of an era too. Gone were the broad, raucous comedies of the early 80s, films like Airplane!, Stripes, Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, now replaced by gentle, often more intellectual fare like Crocodile Dundee, Big and When Harry Met Sally. (In fact, two of the biggest bombs of the late-80s were the sequels to Caddyshack and Ghostbusters.) Arizona wasn’t exactly the biggest hit in the world but it’s hard to imagine ever getting released during the SNL-era; by ’87 the waters had cooled, and the time was ripe for edgier humor.
And yet, Raising Arizona was ridiculously funny – just as uproarious as those other films I mentioned. From its 11-minute, pre-credit opening, which sets up the entire plot, to the final, elegiac coda, which offers us a fitting meditation on its theme, the film is loaded with mile-a-minute laughs, thanks to the Coen brothers’ trademark droll dialogue, their trademark kinetic camerawork and trademark tight-as-a-drum editing, which packages everything together in a flurry of charged energy, a work of such wit and imagination that it was small wonder the Coens would go on to a career in film that continues to this day.
Nicholas Cage plays “Hi” McDunnough, a serial robber (who uses unloaded guns) that just can’t stay out of jail, until he falls in love with a cop, Edwina, whom he nicknames “Ed” (Holly Hunter). They marry, but Ed discovers she’s barren, and with Hi’s criminal history adopting is out of the question. The solution? Kidnap one of the Arizona quintuplets (babies of Nathan Arizona, of Unpainted Arizona, the area’s largest distributor of furniture) because they have “more than they need.” It all goes mostly according to plan, and it loosk like the McDonnough’s have they own progeny at last, but trouble soon starts when the Snoats brothers break out of jail, and decide to crash with Hi and Ed. And then Ed’s friends, Glen and Dot, start some trouble with the former’s suggestion they swap spouses. Finally, the mean mother to end all mean mothers, Leonard Smalls, bullies Arizona into paying him an inflated ransom for the return of his baby. Ultimately, everyone seems to want collect the ransom for the tyke, but the McDunnough’s do the right thing and return their erstwhile babe to his rightful owners, but finding their own relationship potentially salvageable.
I already mentioned how funny Arizona is – idiosyncratic dialogue, yokels using heightened vocabulary, over-analysis of minor things, ironic cuts, visual jokes, etc. – but I was surprised this time by its serious side. There are several scenes that reveal the emotions and deep-seated desires of its characters – something fellow ironist Wes Anderson was never able to completely accomplish. You can feel Ed’s achy turmoil over not being able to bear a child, then having one, the making the hard choice to give it. And through Hi’s dreams we emphasize with him too, particular in his final, heartbreaking dream of the future. And then there’s the scene in which the McDonnough’s return the child to Arizona – completely jokeless – but heartwarming in a way unexpected in a film this rambunctious. But then, that’s the way the Coens operate: all of their comedies are tinged with drama and all of their dramas are tinged with comedy.
And I mustn’t exit this review lest I forget to praise Holly Hunter’s performance. She is pitch-perfect here, using her Southern drawl for idiosyncratic effect (one is reminded of Carol Burnett in those Eunice sketches), and shuffling comfortably between irony and heartfelt emotion. One could easily see her as the Coens’ female actress of choice were it not for their selection of Francis McDormand (it helped that she married Joel).
If you’ve never seen it, see it, and if you have, see it again. You’ll amazed at how dateless it is.