Let’s just all take a minute and think about how great Raising Arizona is. Now we all know the Coens love a good farce to offset all their more serious work, and on the face of it, this one’s so completely and utterly silly that it might just be dismissed as a pet project. You’re almost embarrassed to watch it with anyone but yourself.
But Raising Arizona is outstanding comedy. It’s complete Loony Toon, white trash, boisterous fun that at times careens all over the place. And this unmitigated spirit makes it a joy to watch. That, and there is fine acting to be found. Nicholas Cage gives a big, big, like towering performance as the little guy, H.I, pulling off some of the finest physical comedy you’ll see in colour. And Holly Hunter – how can you not fall in love with Holly Hunter? – gives a manic and fiery performance as his wife Ed. Short for Edwina. There’s also great support from Coen-regular John Goodman and William Forsythe as the outlaw friends of H.I’s from prison.
OK, so the set-up is done in a cute, brisk prologue in the first ten minutes. H.I is a repeat offender who keeps going back to jail. And every time he runs into Ed, the officer tasked with taking his mugshot. They eventually fall in love and H.I quits crime to start a life with her. Slowly they start thinking about having a child of their own to share all of life’s beauty with, only to find that Ed can’t have children and because of H.I’s criminal record, they can’t adopt either. Then the Arizona quintuplets are born to Nathan and Florence Arizona, and H.I and Ed decide that’s “more than they can handle”. They decide to kidnap a child for themselves, and that’s Raising Arizona, which sets the scene for all hell to be raised. In Arizona. I love that the title appears and the movie effectively begins only after ten minutes with a flourish, I do.
There’s great comedy throughout. And the point of it almost is to mock the thought of child rearing perhaps, saying maybe that there’s nothing to be shared with a child apart from buffoonery and cruelty. Those in the movie, furthermore, who have kids don’t seem worthy of them. And then there’s the complicating issue that H.I and Ed’s love will probably not survive without a child.
Anyway, that might all be too deep. There’s a sweet love story in there, but the movie really comes down to two scenes for me. Two of the best scenes in comedy.
The one about halfway in sees H.I, helpless to his own nature, holding up another convenience store. A marvelous chase ensues through the street and people’s backyards and houses, ending up in a supermarket shoot-out. There is a controlled chaos in this scene, with guns firing and pratfalling all linked by some beautiful inter-cut tracking shots that make the scene soar to its conclusion. And all the time there’s the famous wailing of the Raising Arizona theme. Just superbly scripted and mapped out. And freakin’ impossible to resist.
The second is at the natural confrontation between the ferocious bounty hunter Leonard Smalls, who shoots bunny rabbits and lizards for fun (played terrific, by the way, by Randall “Tex” Cobb), and H.I. This is arguably an even better scene as it incorporates great violence that is somehow made to look harmless. It has such a perfect tempo and a sort of calm to it, rendering it more like a laugh-out-loud armwrestle than a joust. And it’s sumptuously shot… just look back to how little Ed moves into the fight without being harmed to snatch Nathan Jr and is then pursued by Smalls through the bank and out the back. Everything about it, the timing especially but particularly Cage, is brilliant. And there’s the tattoo reveal as well.
And then the movie ends with a really pleasing symmetry. From fire and returning to fire. From the earth, and returning to the earth. And the madness, that was briefly unleashed, is returned to Pandora’s box. It truly is a classic. Watch it alone, so you can laugh unabashed.