This is the movie that put the Coen Brothers on the map, expanding their popularity far beyond the cult level of their first effort, Blood Simple. As such, Raising Arizona is certainly of interest as an early document of two of the most intriguing filmmakers working today. As a stand-alone film, however, I’m sticking to my one-line assessment on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site: “Movies like this are why the Coens are uneven.”
Uneven though Joel and Ethan Coen may be as filmmakers, boring and uninteresting they most certainly are not. Despite the fact that I’d place this broadly played comedy in the same “nice try” category with their The Big Lebowski — cautioning the brothers that there’s such a thing as being too concerned with being hip — I’d never call Raising Arizona dull.
The wild story line is in itself pretty clever: Former petty criminal H.I. McDonnough (Nicolas Cage) kidnaps one of the “Arizona quints” — five children born to unpainted-furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) — to provide H.I.’s “barren” wife, Edwina (Holly Hunter), with a much-wanted child. And much of what takes place between the couple concerning the kidnapped infant is a savvy commentary on what might be called “baby mania.”
The problem with the film lies for me in the too-broad comedy of the supporting characters — especially prison escapees Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forstythe); much of this material is protracted and played with somewhat less subtlety than scenes by the Three Stooges. When I first saw Raising Arizona, in fact, I was ready to write off the Coens as more clever than good, and almost didn’t bother seeing their next film, the brilliant Miller’s Crossing, as a result.
After re-watching Raising Arizona for this review, I still find the film to be about equal parts amusing and annoying, and too concerned with its own cleverness. Still, I also find it an endlessly fascinating repository of nearly everything that makes the Coens, at their best, among the finest filmmakers of our time. The quirkiness is there. The extreme cinematic invention. The off-center comedy. The ersatz Preston Sturges dialogue, where people express themselves in deliciously convoluted ways. The problem is that at this point in their career, the Coens hadn’t figured out how to bring it all together to form a unified whole.
At their best — Miller’s Crossing; Barton Fink; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; and, yes, their most recent The Ladykillers — the brothers fuse these elements into a single, solid vision. With Raising Arizona, we have all the pieces, but they don’t quite fit together. Still, the film is lively, it’s frequently funny and it’s always creative — all reasons to pay it another visit.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The West Asheville’s Walk-in Theatre series (presented by Orbit DVD, Beauty Parade, Digging Art and Westville Pub) will screen Raising Arizona on Friday, June 11 at dark (approximately 8:30 p.m.) in the parking lot behind the Bledsoe Building.]