Wild-haired, simple and single-minded repeat convict H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) is in and out of Maricopa County lockup in Tempe, Arizona, for continuing to rob convenience stores; he blames Reagan in the White House among other things for his delinquency. Finding a kind of solace in the camaraderie of jail, he eventually feels the pain of imprisonment when he imagines himself with pretty young Edwina “Ed” (Holly Hunter), the police officer in charge of booking and photographing him each time he’s arrested. When he’s released for the last time, his lawless years behind him, he asks for her hand in marriage and she enthusiastically accepts. After a few good years, with thoughts of a child being the next step, the couple is saddened to discover Ed is barren. Adoption is also out of the question, with H.I.’s checkered past. It seems biology and the prejudices of others conspire to keep them childless.
When the news of Nathan and Florence Arizona’s recently born quintuplets greets the McDunnough’s, who are now quite desperate to create a family, they plot to steal one of the newborns. After all, the Arizona’s have more than they can handle. A successful kidnapping later, they set about trying to raise the toddler as if it’s a prized possession or a new toy, complete with instruction manual. They’re completely clueless, but have the best intentions. Then, Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe) Snoats, two escaped convict brothers, visit the happy new household, bringing with them a piece of the past and a grim sense of foreboding. The Arizona family expectedly panics when they discover their missing child, and resort to hiring a filthy, brutish bounty hunter (Randall “Tex” Cobb) to track down the purloined baby.
Raising Arizona uses extremely exaggerated, purposely over-the-top characters to paint a vivid tale of unlikely heroes and read-between-the-lines villains. The outstanding cast, led by the inimitable Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, also includes many notable supporting roles; John Goodman and William Forsythe are at the top of the list as wanted men, (introduced with impressive symbolism of childbirth during a muddy prison escape and a comedic precursor to The Shawshank Redemption). Goodman provides the brawn amongst the pair of relatively scatter-brained characters that intermittently say knowledgeable things at unlikely times. Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray join them, representing the worst possibilities for family life, including feelings of restriction, questioning their relationship, and raising kids to be monsters.
Behind all the obvious jokes and dark humor, there is a poignant message about overcoming one’s own demons. The biker that terrorizes H.I.’s dreams reveals a road runner tattoo that is identical to his own, symbolizing his inner turmoil and the constant battle to overcome his doubts about his abilities as a father and as a decent human – the biker is in many ways H.I.’s futuristic alternate personality. He must also combat the influences of his prison friends, who convince him to be true to his nature and return to criminal endeavors. The final monologue that resonates over a positive, possible future, acknowledges long-awaited acceptance of his situation and the improvements that will undoubtedly occur with his ceaseless determination to be a better person. The entire film seemingly flees reality, creating a sense of surrealism and constant symbolism amongst fun, silly imagery.
With great music that cleverly contrasts the activities at hand (most popular is the Sons of the Pioneer yodel), creative framing, unique choreography, absolutely hilarious dialogue and splendid action (one chase scene in particular combines them all as H.I. sprints through the town, eluding police, intent on securing a package of diapers for “Jr.”), the Coen Brothers have succeeded once again in creating a highly original film, and an eccentric take on slapstick and situation comedy. Everything is tinged with sarcasm, sometimes overflowing into laugh-out-loud hilarity, including the humorous and oftentimes cartoon-like violence. Raising Arizona is a delightfully singular, outrageously bizarre and unquestionably hysterical cult comedy adventure – and only the second film by the brother filmmakers that demonstrates lasting power and immense potential.- Mike Massie (www.GoneWithTheTwins.com)