In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1997 and seven from 1987 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films that were among either year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
For a candy-colored comedy enjoyed by these eyes at least 30 times, 1987’s Raising Arizona regularly unveils new hues. Yes, Joel and Ethan Coen’s first masterpiece (of many) — in which ex-con H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and Holly Hunter’s cop named Ed (short for Edwina, TURN TO THE RIGHT!) resort to desperate measures to obtain a baby — remains their most generous gut-buster of instantly iconic setpieces and quips (Sorry, Dude. No shame in runner-up.) Lightning rounds are inevitable for all Arizona aficionados. Here’s mine (limited to five so as not to quote the entire script):
- Prison Psychiatrist: “Why do you say you feel trapped in a woman’s body?”
Deep-Voiced Male Inmate: “Well, sometimes I get the menstrual cramps real hard.”
- Mom who thinks she knows it all to her idiot son: “Mind you don’t cut yourself, Mordecai!”
- An unfinished-furniture magnate whose last name is found to not be Arizona (as he swears in advertisements): “Would you buy furniture from a place called Unpainted Huffhines?”
- Prison escapee #1: “We released ourselves on our own recognizance.”
Prison escapee #2: “We felt the institution no longer had anything to offer us.”
- Prison escapee #1: “These balloons blow up into funny shapes?”
Store clerk: “Not unless round’s funny.”
That doesn’t even count the GOAT-level semantic joke during a bank robbery where “hayseeds” hold the upper hand and in which co-star John Goodman’s vexed look suggests a very mind on the verge of a hard reboot).
Or the mid-movie robbery / car-and-foot-chase / grocery-store shootout, which may be the most exuberant sequence the Coens have yet captured — cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld’s camera fearlessly, and riotously, hurtling headlong into a night flight in which buckshot and bloodlust lurk around every corner.
This is an eternally riotous scene but also emblematic of the existential entropy at the center of this daringly different screwball yarn. Raising Arizona dared to suggest — in the thick of things rather than in hindsight — a palpable unease and uncertainty that befell lower middle classes in the latter Reagan years. A great deal of the laughs here are folded into a fragility that the nuclear-family American dream might be one from which many were prematurely roused … or never allowed to peacefully inhabit at all. That notion is centered in the foreground (a pointedly narrated barb at Reagan himself) and at the fringes. If you blink, you’ll miss a Mondale-Ferraro bumper sticker — a hint at, by way of dream sequences, a world unchosen. Ditto a color portrait of JFK next to Ear-Bending Cellmate, aka Crawdad Guy, to whose tales of culinary improvisation / experimentation H.I. drifts off to sleep in the clink (indicating both Crawdad Guy’s stint in the joint and how long it has been since his dreams dissipated).
Arizona is also close kin to the Coens’ two other best films, Fargo and No Country for Old Men. It seems no coincidence that these three are generally spaced 10 years apart. They consider, with increasingly more violence and skepticism, whether individual good can surmount insidious, collective evil given flesh.
Brought to menacing Peckinpah-esque life by boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb, Arizona’s Leonard Smalls arrives like hell’s right hand — a motorcycle-riding, cigarillo-chomping warden of the apocalypse who tosses grenades at bunnies and picks iguanas off rocks with a double-barreled shotgun. Smalls, too, wants a baby, but to what dastardly end is initially unclear. He is inherently more cartoonish, and his provenance as a Tyler Durden-esque delusion of H.I. more contestable. Nevertheless, he’s cut from the same chilling cloth as Fargo’s Gaear Grimsrud or the Coens’ vision of Anton Chigurh in Country. Meeting their gaze for too long reveals more about your easily exploitable weaknesses than any they may hold.
Even if Arizona were to end after its first 12 minutes – during which H.I. and Ed meet, marry, mourn their inability to make babies, and mastermind a plan to kidnap just one little bundle of love from a famous family who “have more than they can handle” with quintuplets — it would be a triumph. Thankfully, 82 more minutes of unfettered joy follow. However, Arizona wasn’t the Coens’ first choice for a purposefully optimistic follow-up to their dark-noir 1984 breakout, Blood Simple. They sought to do The Hudsucker Proxy next, but no producers ponied up the $40 million they wanted to realize their vision — small change now but not then.
Influenced by director Preston Sturges and the writings of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, the Coens shifted to Arizona, which they shot in 10 weeks. For their leads, they cast a pair of actors on the verge of stardom. Cage had graduated from lead roles in cult classics to the commercial big leagues with Peggy Sue Got Married the year before and Moonstruck later in 1987; eight years later, Cage won his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. Hunter was a college roommate of Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife, and the Coens specifically wrote Ed for her. For her work later that same year in Broadcast News, Hunter earned her first of four Oscar nominations (eventually winning for 1993’s The Piano).
(Side note: Kevin Costner, who also enjoyed a breakout 1987 with No Way Out and The Untouchables, thrice auditioned for H.I. Even given Costner’s considerable skill, it’s hard to imagine an actor less suited to a character with hair like Woody Woodpecker and luck like Wile E. Coyote.)
H.I.’s initial encounter with the penal system — the first of many — comes in 1983, after a botched gas station robbery lands him before the intake camera of Ed, a buttoned-up, big-voiced police officer with whom he’s immediately smitten. As H.I. gains the “boneheaded name” of recidivist (or, as the Coens remind us, “ree-peat oh-fender!”), we see his assertive, take-me-or-leave-me personality pierce Ed’s armor … and Ed’s pain penetrate H.I.’s island of isolation. For once, H.I. has something to lament during his perpetual incarceration. While this may not be the best full-of-love reason to woo someone, H.I. pursues, and wins Ed’s heart and hand anyway. (“Don’t worry. I paid for it,” he says of her ring.)
After H.I. takes a job at Hudsucker Industries (wink-wink), the couple retreats to a desert trailer where they resolve to create a critter they can call their own. However, they soon learn Ed is barren — her womb “a rocky place where (H.I.’s) seed could find no purchase.” It seems H.I. and Ed have simply traded one prison for another, each stuck in solitary as the marriage wilts; Ed laments her medical condition and quits her job while H.I. starts driving by gas stations not on his way home. But then they read about the bountiful blessing bestowed upon Nathan Arizona, Sr., whose furniture commercials blanket TV in the American southwest. Fertility treatments yielded a quintuple haul for the big-shot businessman. Surely, Ed rationalizes, the Arizonas won’t miss a fifth if they still have four … right?
These 12 minutes constitute a perfect short story of narrative economy, character motivation, humorous quirk and emotional pull. Note how Ed wears her uniform to her and H.I.’s adoption consultation, knowing she must somehow offset H.I.’s accordion-sized felony file. Soon enough, she casts it aside altogether — occupationally and symbolically tendering resignation. The sequence concludes with a literary, evocative image of H.I. and Ed riding off (a ladder strapped to their station wagon) to nab a baby. Here, trailer-park neon and sunset converge — the artificial and natural mixed until it grows impossible for them to decide on a beacon to follow. H.I. and Ed drive off bathed in light and yet nothing is clear.
And while Arizona may not represent Carter Burwell’s most sophisticated score for the Coen Brothers, it is by far his most memorable and explodes in full bloom over the opening credits — largely a whistle, banjo and yodel roundelay borrowed freely from Pete Seeger and Ludwig van Beethoven. (As majestically as “Ode to Joy” is used in Die Hard, it better fits the Coens’ emphasis on absolution here.)
When H.I. kidnaps Nathan, Jr. (or so he thinks) — in lieu of his brothers Harry, Barry, Larry and Garry — it plays like a Looney Tunes version of the Lindbergh kidnapping. The Coens indulge a rare bit of direct parody (from Jaws), emphasizing the depth of water drowning H.I. and the density of the sharks circling. These babies are ridiculously fast crawlers whom H.I. can barely contain let alone corral; note that Nathan Sr., listening from downstairs, immediately and accurately guesses which baby he hears crying.
The baby-napping also hones the sharp edge on Ed’s primal tilt into lawlessness. She refuses to let H.I. back in the car without one. Her mantra that the Arizonas have more than they can handle only deflects the odds currently working against her and H.I. as a couple. However influenced by yearning for love and human kindness as they might be, Ed’s choices and H.I.’s complicity in them rocks the foundation of their marriage. When they mount up against Smalls’ siege, it is to save neither a family nor a marriage, just a baby they have unreasonably endangered.
Meanwhile, Trey Wilson — as Nathan, Sr. — dominates his scant screen time with more than just simplistic caricature of a buffoonish bigwig. Here is a man who feels the economic panic of maintaining a perception of strength while his son’s kidnapping eats him up inside. Nathan, Sr. has reinvented himself from that unsavory Huffhines name to something powerful and trustworthy — a legacy worth passing on to another generation. If he erupts in frustration at investigators’ ineptitudes, it’s only out of deep fatherly love, and his nuanced tenderness and mercy later underscores a brotherhood-of-man message.
But again, Raising Arizona is a comedy, with perhaps no more uproarious reminder than the supporting characters of Gale (Goodman) and Evelle Snoats (William Forsythe) – a pair of ne’er-do-well brothers whom H.I. befriended in the joint before the siblings busted loose from the hoosegow. This breakout is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying — birthed from the ground like a golem from H.I.’s subconscious. (If you consider Smalls as H.I.’s destructive id, the Snoats brothers his malfunctioning ego and Ed his borderline hypocritical super-ego, the film feels like one man’s phrenological crisis come to life.)
Much to Ed’s consternation, the Snoats brothers come knocking upon the very formation of their felonious family. They are, of course, easy scapegoats to blame for enabling H.I.’s worst tendencies when she has done that herself. That’s because, when it comes to persuasive seediness, Gale and Evelle are smarter than anyone gives them credit for. (“We certainly didn’t mean to … influence anybody,” Gale demurs when Ed confronts them for recruiting H.I. for a bank robbery.) And it’s as much karmic retaliation against Ed as it is any financial gain when they begin to consider taking Nathan Jr. for themselves. The Snoats’ legendary ineptitude at schemes, of course, comically asserts itself in the finale.
Forever resembling a babyface born under a bad sign, Forsythe has considerable comedic chops that, alas, have been sorely underutilized in a long That Guy career of bearded bad guys; he wouldn’t be even remotely this funny again until Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. There’s also genuine pathos in a moment when Nathan Jr. — a blank slate of need and want as yet unmarked by life — seems to smile at Evelle in unconditional love. Gale is, of course, a prototypical performance for Goodman’s best film work — the way his philosophy and physique strike equally imposing stances as they would in so much of the Coens’ other work as well as the more recent 10 Cloverfield Lane. The moment in which the Snoats brothers — having made a major error — howl for minutes on end walks up to the line of intolerable annoyance, salvaged by distinct characterization; one howls in anger, the other in anguish. (Pay attention to your speakers, too, once they stop the car, for the shopkeeper audio gag never truly abates.)
There are even more characters who come to have designs on Nathan Jr. for themselves — Glen (Sam McMurray), H.I.’s racist factory foreman, and his nattering nabob wife, Dot (McDormand). We meet the couple visiting H.I. and Ed’s trailer for a dinner with a cabal of churlish children in tow. My favorite? Buford, the “sly one” who knows his ABCs and gives no damn about writing words he knows on H.I. and Ed’s walls.
H.I. presumes the comparative polish of Glen and Dot’s life is a model to follow, but upon seeking advice from Glen, he finds their marital and family life hides even deeper, darker moral quandaries.
“It’s a crazy world,” Glen tells H.I. “Somebody oughta sell tickets,” H.I. replies.
Hardly a lark, Arizona takes a deep look at how the loneliness we hope to avoid and the legacies we hope to leave through our families can lay terrifyingly inescapable traps. How we must sometimes blow up our lives in order to rebuild them. The difficulty of owning up to the truth over what we know a person wants to hear. The ways in which connections often hinge on agreements that are, at best, tenuous.
And yet, Arizona remains the Coens’ most poignant, humane work yet. Its final scenes — full of heartbreaking work from Cage and Hunter — are downbeat, but the film leaves H.I. and Ed neither depressed nor in dire straits. Instead, they focus on reaffirming ways in which this madcap situation has improved them. Their better angels win out to make them fuller, happier people even if they should separate.
Do the Coens still feel such deliverance is possible? Tough to say. While The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are not the brothers’ last outright comedies, they are perhaps the only ones since Arizona that do not seem to stand in eventual judgment of main characters’ guilt or uselessness. (The exploits of Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers (2004) and Burn After Reading leap to mind, along with the beating Llewyn Davis suffers, the unforgettably nightmarish final shot of A Serious Man and the darker resolution of Hail, Caesar!)
But here, in Raising Arizona, the Coens first delight with sheer kinetics, then dazzle with colorful colloquialisms and verbal voodoo, and eventually disarm you with the grace and guile through which they examine modern foibles, failures and forgiveness.