Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: March 13, 1987
Directed by: Joel Coen
Genre: Comedy / Crime
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
One of the earliest feature films by the highly-acclaimed team of Ethan and Joel Coen, “Raising Arizona” ranks 31st on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years,100 Laughs,” a list saluting the 100 funniest American films of all time. “Raising Arizona” tells the tale of an ex-con who marries one of the police officers involved in his incarceration. The newly-married couple decides they want a baby, and, unable to conceive, concoct a plan to kidnap one of the quintuplets born to the wealthy Nathan Arizona, a furniture tycoon. The couple ruminate that swiping one baby won’t be that big of a deal because, well, Arizona and his wife have four others to spare!
Ethan and Joel Coen, more commonly known as the “Coen Brothers,” are iconic figures on the Hollywood scene. Their films include such critically-acclaimed, and publicly well-received offerings as “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Intolerable Cruelty.” In the case of “Raising Arizona,” the brothers share screenplay credits with Joel undertaking primary directing duties and Ethan Coen holding an un-credited directorial nod.
Because of the screenplay writing efforts of the Coen brothers, the film follows a complicated and ever-twisting plot seamlessly and with ease. After the initial kidnapping, a second one is threatened and a third one ensues. A would-be bounty hunter injects himself into the process, threatening to kidnap the baby a fourth time, with the intention of selling the infant on the black market. Status as escaped convicts and marital problems between Hi and Ed (Edwina) (the couple who initially snatch the Arizona baby), add much-needed flavor to the dynamic script.
In directing the film, Joel Coen indicated that their goal was to turn this potentially dark flick into an optimistic jaunt. Thanks to the strong screenplay, the uniquely capable directing abilities of the brothers and a sterling cast, “Raising Arizona” becomes a light-hearted romp, full of laughs and hopeful in tone throughout.
Nicholas Cage shines as the male lead, Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough. A repeat criminal offender, Hi is both hapless and lovable. A typical moviegoer roots for Hi to succeed, even though his schemes run the spectrum from stupid to criminal. Cage’s performance as Hi represents a high mark in the actor’s career, as critics time and again return to this performance as a prime example of Cage’s inherent talent when reviewing his complete body of work.
Cage’s work in “Raising Arizona” did take a bit of a backseat in 1987 to the release of “Moonstruck” the same year, in which he co-starred with Cher. Cage, the nephew of Hollywood legend Francis Ford Coppola, won immediate critical praise for his role as the male lead in “Moonstruck,” with Cher taking the Best Actress Oscar for her work in the film.
Holly Hunter also received an Academy Award nod for her lead role in “Broadcast News” the same year “Raising Arizona” released. Cast as Edwina, known as “Ed”, Hunter plays something of a no-nonsense law enforcement officer who falls in love with Hi while repeatedly being called upon to take the man’s mug shots. As she struggles to keep her little family together, Hunter’s portrayal of Ed is both poignant and endearing.
John Goodman too makes a mark in the film as Gale Snoats, one of two escaped cons who previously befriended Hi while they were incarcerated together. Frances McDormand, who went on to earn an Oscar for Best Actress in “Fargo” is delightful as an air-headed Dot, the spouse of Hi’s boss. In real-life, McDormand is married to Joel Coen and makes frequent appearances in films directed by the brothers.
The film is marked by what routinely is described as “flamboyant” camera work, thanks not only to the Coen brothers but the outstanding cinematography of Barry Sonnenfeld. Although a comedy at first blush, the camera work is akin to that found in the most highly-regarded action films produced in Hollywood. Sonnenfeld’s directing credits include the three films in the “Men In Black” franchise and the duo of films making up the “Addams Family” collection.
Although “Raising Arizona” did not garner a great deal of attention when initially released in 1987, it has stuck around, with the film becoming nothing less than a major cult classic. Critics are quick to give the film high marks and praise to ensure it is not forgotten. On all levels, in front and behind the camera, “Raising Arizona” is powerful entertainment and a must-see for all desiring a colorful slapstick comedy with a splash of excitement.