This post originally ran as part of The Slapstick Blog-a-Thon held at Film of the Year in September 2007. I've revised the piece slightly to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of the Coen brothers' second feature on March 13, 1987.
They say he's a decent man, so maybe his advisers are confused." — H.I. McDunnough
By Edward Copeland
The frenetic slapstick nature of Raising Arizona doesn't kick in immediately. As it begins, the movie restricts most of its wackiness to wordplay. The first (and I still think the best) instance of the Coen brothers milking laughs by creating dimwitted characters that spout purple prose in thickly painted-on accents, churning out phrases that people such as these never would utter if they existed in the real world. The Coens would recycle that formula many times in films such as Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the ill-advised remake of The Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers, having Tom Hanks assume Alec Guinness' memorable turn by impersonating Colonel Sanders. However, the Coens never would go that route with as much hilarious and charming success as they did in Raising Arizona, which holds up strongly 25 years later.
What impressed me first when I saw Raising Arizona a quarter-century ago was its opening prologue, which lasts a full 11 minutes before the title even appears. It's an amazingly efficient 11 minutes as well, setting up nearly all the main characters and situations. We meet habitual convenience store robber H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage), whose parole board he frequently visits (and which frequently frees him) warns that he's only hurting himself with this "rambunctious behavior." We also meet his prison friends Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman, William Forsythe). Most importantly, we meet the police officer who takes H.I.'s mugshot and prints each time he returns to prison. The officer goes by the name Ed, short for Edwina (Holly Hunter). We get to see the attraction grow between her and H.I., especially after Ed's fiancé dumps her and, during one of his releases, H.I. finally works up the courage to ask Ed to be his bride, even though he'd previously said, referring to his chosen profession of armed robbery, that "sometimes your career comes before family." Unfortunately, family doesn't seem to be in the offing for the McDunnoughs as they learn from doctors that Ed's "insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase." That bit of narration from H.I. perfectly illustrates what I mean about the contrast between the characters' character and their speech. In Raising Arizona, the Coens excel at crafting this type of incongruous dialogue. The brothers followed up with two completely different films — Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink. After that, they tended to keep returning to a formula of dumb characters speaking flowery language in plots usually involving kidnapping and/or murder.
All that comes later. Today, we're praising when it worked in what was just their second feature. At the same time that the childless McDunnoughs are beginning married life, furniture kingpin Nathan Arizona (the late Trey Wilson) and his wife, thanks to fertility drugs, end up having quintuplets which prompts Nathan to remark is "more than they can handle." It gives Ed the idea that perhaps it would be OK if she and H.I. just took one of the five off the Arizonas' hands so she and H.I. would have a little one to raise as their own while they eased the Arizonas' burden at the same time. That's where the madness truly begins. What's remarkable about the Coens' work in Raising Arizona is that it's not just pure slapstick, but a brilliant blending of slapstick and suspense, beginning with the first outright slapstick sequence as H.I. climbs through the window of the Arizona household to try to snatch one of the infants, setting off a tense comic scene of toddlers gone wild. Set to Carter Burwell's musical score, which has more than a passing resemblance in this scene to John Williams' theme from Jaws, the babies roam, one perilously approaching the steps leading downstairs. You can't decide whether to laugh uproariously or in fright. Once the stolen baby rests comfortably in the McDunnoughs' trailer, things get really complicated.
H.I.'s prison buddies Gale and Evelle literally burst through the mud outside the prison and escape, or as Evelle puts it, they released themselves "on their own recognizance." After briefly cleaning themselves up in a gas station rest room (Dr. Strangelove fans, check the acronym that's been spray-painted on the bathroom stall's door), the brothers arrive at H.I.'s trailer, looking for a place to stay and insisting to Ed that they "don't always smell this way." The police officer in Ed doesn't like fugitives in her family's home, even though she herself is a felon now, albeit a good-intentioned one. Another complication arises with a visit from H.I.'s boss at work, Glen (Sam McMurray), his wife Dot (Frances McDormand) and their seemingly endless stream of diabolical children. "Mind you don't cut yourself, Mordecai" and "Take that diaper off your head and put it back on your sister" are just two of the many things Glen yells as his brood goes wild. While Dot rapidly lectures Ed on the need for insurance, avoiding orthodontic work and making sure the baby stays up to date on his "dip-tet boosters," Glen confides to H.I. that Dot wants another one, because these have grown too big to cuddle, but something has gone wrong with his semen. H.I. tries to lie about how he and Ed got to "adopt" a child so fast, but more trouble arises when Glen suggests to H.I. that they swap wives because he and Dot like to swing. H.I. punches Glen, who takes off like a madman and runs smack into a tree. Glen flees H.I., telling him not to bother coming into work anymore and promising to sue.
From that moment on, Raising Arizona essentially becomes an extended free-for-all chase. Since H.I. figures that Glen will make good on his word and fire him, he finds himself passing by convenience stores again "that weren't on the way home." Ed puts her foot down and wants Gale and Evelle gone. "I'd rather light a candle than curse your darkness," Gale tells H.I., while trying to convince him to help with a bank robbery. H.I. declines, but with Ed and the baby in the car, he does proceed to rob a convenience store for money and Huggies, setting off a loopy, more than five-minute long pursuit sequence. A pissed off Ed drives off with the baby, leaving H.I. to escape on foot. The Coens' hyperkinetic camera doesn't stop for a second as it rolls through groceries, streets and houses while clerks and dogs join the H.I. hunt.
Of course, the deadliest pursuit has yet to occur. H.I. already has had visions of a strange biker who takes no mercy on anyone or anything, and the vision turns out to be Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb), a self-described tracker, "some say hound dog." He meets with Nathan Arizona and offers to find his boy, but for a higher price than the reward the furniture magnate has offered. Arizona refuses, but Smalls insists he'll find the baby anyway and take whatever price "the market will bear." Back at the trailer, the chaos escalates as Glen figures out where H.I. and Ed got the baby and demands they turn the tot over to him and Dot. Before H.I. can even contemplate what to do, Gale and Evelle, who overheard the conversation, decide to steal the infant for themselves. Gale and H.I. tear the trailer apart in a residence-wrecking fight that takes place while Evelle shields Nathan Jr. The fugitives prevail and take off with Nathan Jr. with plans to hold him for ransom (and use him as a third man on the bank holdup). When Ed returns home to find H.I. tied up, she frees him and the couple leave to rescue the child, though Ed makes it clear that they aren't good for each other and should split once the baby is safe. The raucous slapstick melees run nearly nonstop after that as the convicts grow too fond of Nathan Jr. to part with him and Smalls arrives to whisk the baby away for his own nefarious purposes, leading to a final showdown with H.I. and Ed. Despite the frenzied pace and over-the-top nonsense, Raising Arizona even manages to conjure some warmth as the film winds down, though perhaps what touched me the most re-watching the film this time is remembering how much I loved the Coen brothers back then, until I felt their career went off the rails beginning with The Hudsucker Proxy. At least their upcoming film, No Country for Old Men, shows some promise as the vehicle marking their return to filmmaking I love instead of just doing variations on the same gags and gimmicks that I still love in their first four films, but has grown old by now.
From top to bottom, all the actors hit exactly the right notes for the movie. Forsythe and Goodman make for a hysterical pair of not-so-swift criminals. Cobb displays just the right amount of menace to remain a cartoon without pushing the film off its comic tone and into a terror mode. The late Parker gets some great material as Nathan Arizona as well as when he yells at the multitude of cops loitering at his house. "Dammit, are you boys gonna chase down your leads or are you gonna sit drinkin' coffee in the one house in the state where I know my boy ain't at?" Even the small roles of bank customers and store owners get priceless moments, especially Charles "Lew" Smith who plays the store owner who utters the response that gives this post its title when Evelle asks a question about some balloons. Cage still was in the early years of his career and Arizona marked the middle film of a three-film run of great Cage performances that started the year before with Peggy Sue Got Married and would concluded later in 1987 with Moonstruck. The breakout actor though was undoubtedly Holly Hunter as Ed. Hunter had appeared in a handful of films and TV movies, but Raising Arizona gave Hunter her biggest exposure so far, but it was just an appetizer for the gourmet meal Hunter would serve fans of great movies and acting in December 1987: Broadcast News.
UPDATE March 17, 2012: As we now know, my hopes for No Country for Old Men ended up being more than fulfilled. That same year, the brothers wrote and directed "Tuileries," one of the best shorts in the great compilation film, Paris, je t'aime . The Coens took a minor step backward with the so-so Burn After Reading that came next. However, the next movie they made ranked as one of their all-time greatest. A Serious Man also introduced me to the great actor Michael Stuhlbarg, who had mostly toiled upon the stage but would go on to impress me in a completely different type of role than his Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man when he became 1920s gangster Arnold Rothstein on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Most recently, the Coens accomplished that rare feat of remaking a film and producing a greater version. Granted, the original True Grit wasn't a masterpiece, but it did contain John Wayne's Oscar-winning role as Rooster Cogburn which Jeff Bridges took on, easily besting the Duke. What really made the Coens' True Grit exceed the 1969 film version was young Hailee Steinfeld playing Mattie Ross. Yes, the Coens I loved early in their career have matured and returned better than ever. It's good that they can produce great works again and we continue to have their older classics such as Raising Arizona holding up after 25 years.