Monday 30 January 2023

Raising Arizona (1987)

Director: Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, Frances McDormand and Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb

Index: The First Thirty.

Nicolas Cage was generally panned for his creative decisions in The Boy in Blue and I was far from enthused by them in Peggy Sue Got Married, though some critics admired his balls in playing Ronny in a way nobody else would. Here is where his creative decisionmaking hit the jackpot for me, because he’s simply perfect as H. I. “Hi” McDunnough.

I’ve seen Raising Arizona before and loved it. It doesn’t stand up quite as well to a fresh 2022 viewing, but it’s still a peach of a comedy from two favourite filmmakers, Joel and Ethan, the Coen Brothers. It’s surreal, which works well for a Nicolas Cage lead role, and it’s cartoonish in similar ways to Crimewave, a film they wrote but Sam Raimi directed. I adore Crimewave but acknowledge that it’s a highly flawed picture. This is better, not least because it’s focused.

Hi is a small time crook who’s inept enough to keep getting sent to prison for convenience store robberies, each time being routed to Ed to take a mugshot. The first time she’s military strict. The second time she’s in tears after her fiancĂ© had left her. The third time Hi proposes.

She’s played in gloriously crisp fashion by Holly Hunter and she’s a great contrast to Hi. He’s tall, she’s short. He’s a crook, she’s a cop. He’s easygoing, she’s dedicated. It underpins the entire movie.

Of course, the two marry and settle down to a quiet and theoretically honest life in a trailer in the desert outside Tempe, Arizona. The only catch is that Ed wants kids but it turns out that she’s infertile. And so, in an act of poorly justified desperation, they see that furniture magnate Nathan Arizona’s wife just gave birth to quintuplets and figure that they won’t miss one of them.

Hunter is excellent here, but Cage is better still, in a role that he was born to play. Hi is a sympathetic fool, a man with little brain but much heart, a devoted husband who would do anything to make his wife happy. He also has a lot of depth, not least because this new crime births a dark side to his character that’s given form by a memorable Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb. The quirks of Hi’s personality were mostly scripted by the Coen Brothers, who were not open to a surrealist like Cage moving the goalposts, but he nails every aspect of the character.

Of course, it’s not just about Hi and Ed and little Nathan Jr. A slew of characters figure out that the baby was stolen and so decide to take him for themselves, for a variety of reasons.

Glen, Hi’s foreman at work, wants the baby because his wife Dot wants to raise it. They’re swingers and Glen has no tact, in addition to being a racist heathen with kids who are the epitome of poorly behaved. When Hi punches Glen out, we practically cheer.

Gale and Evelle, a couple of crooks Hi knew inside who have escaped and turned up at his trailer out of the blue, want the baby too, to be able to claim the reward money. And there’s Leonard Smalls, “warthog from Hell” in Ed’s memorable phrasing, who wants the baby because he’s a tracker who pressures Nathan Arizona into upping that reward.

Cue what the Coen Brothers do best, which is to arrange reality through cartoon logic into something that works as action, comedy and a whole bunch of other genres at the same time. There are great scenes early and late, but the best are in the middle when everyone places their cards on the table and the snatch and countersnatch business proceeds. Every time Nathan Jr. changes hands, the new hands pick up mama’s increasingly beaten up copy of Dr. Spock’s book on child rearing, just to be safe.

My favourite scene, or rather succession of scenes, comes after Hi punches Glen. Realising that he’s going to be fired, he decides to rob a convenience store again, primarily for a pack of Huggies. He does so as ineptly as ever and, when Ed outside realises what he’s doing, she drives away. Off he runs before the police get there with a stocking over his head, Huggies in hand and the world behind him.

He’s chased by an overzealous clerk with a gun, trigger-happy cops, a growing profusion of dogs, the works, in a chase that takes him down roads, over fences, through yards, into someone’s truck and even through someone’s house. It’s slapstick gold as only the Coens can deliver it and Cage is more than up to leading the scene.

It does help that the rest of the cast are an array of great character actors. John Goodman is suitably confident as Gale but his brother is even better, the always under-rated William Forsyth playing Evelle as even more of an idiot than Hi but without his reedeming qualities. Frances McDormand is an excellent Dot, even though she doesn’t get a lot of screen time in this one. Cobb steals almost every scene he’s in, only bested in his showdown with Cage.

However, all these actors benefit from the pristine script and sharp direction by the Coen Brothers and strong editing from Michael R. Miller. The cinematography is excellent too, courtesy of Barry Sonnenfeld, only known at this point for his work for the Coens, but soon to become a major director in his own right, a solid debut in The Addams Family leading to the even better sequel, Get Shorty and Men in Black.

By all reports, Cage didn’t enjoy the shoot that much because of how tight a rein he was kept on, as indeed was everyone else. He’d had quite a lot of freedom over his past few films and he missed that, but the part was so suited to him that it didn’t really matter too much. I have to admit that I was shocked when I read that the Coens were far from convinced by his auditions. I hope they can look back now and see how right they were to hire him.

Cage had made good films before, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Cotton Club both top notch pictures, but neither were good because of him. He wasn’t close to the top of the cast in either of them and his impact on their success was negligible. Here, he’s the lead and he lives up to that billing. It might have been excellent without him, given the other talent involved, but it’s hard to imagine someone else playing the part of Hi with as much wackiness and as much depth as Cage brings to the part.

This was his best and best fulfilled role thus far, arriving at a crucial point in his career.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I loved your review -- Raising Arizona is one of my favorite movies. When I was in my mid-20s, my friends and I used to watch it ALL. THE. TIME. To this day, decades later, one of my friends will occasionally say, "Son - you got a panty on your head," and we all fall out. At the time I fell for this movie, I didn't know anything about the Coen Brothers, but I'm now a huge fan of everything they do. And I agree that Nicholas Cage did a masterful job. (I liked him in Peggy Sue, too!) Loved this post!