Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Raising Arizona," April 1987

(Little did I know when I saw "Raising Arizona" what affection I would develop for the films of Joel and Ethan Coen over the coming decades. They are amazing talents. I don't much care for the writing in this review, but it is what it is -- and kind of fun for me to notice the talents of actors who went on to even greater prominence.)

April 10, 1987
Standard-Examiner staff

"Raising Arizona" is a very odd movie. But it's an extremely funny one, too, a quality that's directly related to its endearing weirdness.

A point also worth noting is that many of the laughs are snatched from the clutches of a decidedly somber topic: child kidnapping. It's all done with oodles of irreverence and a great deal of skill, though; so much so, that you rarely consider the darker side of the action. This is flat-out entertainment, and tromps on things American society holds dear, like the importance of the family unit and a system based on law and order.

Written, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen ("Blood Simple"), "Raising Arizona" turns the world upside down and shakes it to see what comes loose.

H.I. (pronounced "Hi") McDonnough is a recidivist holdup man who used to knock-off convenience stores with unloaded guns. His wife, Ed (short for Edwina), is a former cop. H.I. first met her as he passed through the booking process at a county jail.

After the two are married, Ed decides she wants a child to raise. But she can't bear children of her own, so the McDonnoughs decide to snatch Nathan Arizona Jr. from his wealthy parents; the Arizonas had fertility problems too, until Mrs. Arizona started gulping medication to solve the problem and gave birth to five kids.

The kidnapping is a hoot, as H.I. tries to decide which tot to nab. And after the happy homecoming, it appears the McDonnoughs have finally formed their own version of the nuclear family. But this is comedy -- the Coen brothers' brand – and things can't remain calm for too long. Soon, a couple of H.I. 's old prison buddies appear at the McDonnoughs' trailer house in search of refuge, with a nasty looking bounty hunter hot on their trail.

With such an odd combination of characters, the action is inevitably explosive and completely unpredictable. Even a simple trip to buy Huggies for Nathan Jr. turns into a series of screeching tires and gun battles in the streets. The grocery store chase, for example, is an inspired bit of mayhem, with food exploding on the shelves, housewives unwittingly thwarting the forces of justice and a pack of dogs slipping and sliding on the waxed linoleum floors.

Nicholas Cage ("Peggy Sue Got Married"), as H.I., is fantastic as the ne'er-do-well thief. Although H.I. is a buffoon, Cage's wicked parody of the rural Westerner includes a dimension of respect. H.I.'s a bit too stupid for his own good, but he means well.

Holly Hunter's Ed is good, too, although she's not given nearly the latitude that Cage has been provided. Much better are John Goodman ("True Stories") and Bill Forsythe ("Once Upon a Time in America") as the Snopes brothers who find refuge at the McDonnough home on the eve of Nathan's arrival. Some of the film's biggest laughs come while they have custody of Nathan Jr.

Still, "Raising Arizona" -- like "Blood Simple" before it -- bears the unmistakable signature of the Coens and their director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld (who performed the same duty on "Three O'Clock High," the movie that was filmed in Ogden last fall). They make movies that are visually stunning and always off-beat. It's really too bad they can't make more of them in a shorter time.

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