Give Me That Baby: The Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona (1987)
In terms of project and tone, the Coen brothers have always been an unpredictable directing duo. They bounce between genres and time periods in their films with each new project, always able to maintain a consistent, signature feeling to each new tale. This pattern started from the very beginning of their career when they followed the noir of Blood Simple with the manic, screwball comedy of Raising Arizona.
Raising Arizona may have been their first attempt at making a comedy, but it certainly wasn’t their last. Some of the brothers’ later comedic films gained a cult status over the years, the most famous of which, by far, is The Big Lebowski. That film’s wild, contrived story, as well its dream-like telling, made it stick in the cultural lexicon in a unique way. Other equally great Coen Brother films have become as iconic in the public eye over the years. Unfortunately, Raising Arizona hasn’t been held in the same regard by many, but it definitely should be.
The film focuses on a couple who desperately want a child. H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) is a supposedly reformed repeat offender, guilty of robbing a multitude of convenience stores over the years. His wife, Edwina (Holly Hunter), is an upstanding police officer who took mugshots of Hi during each of his arrests. They’re exact opposites in most ways, but when they get together after Hi’s final arrest, they’re a perfect fit. After marrying, they quickly discover that they can neither have a child of their own, nor adopt, due to Hi’s long list of convictions. When they hear about the sudden birth of quintuplets to the wealthy Arizona family, they decide to take things into their own hands and claim one of the children, who they rename Junior, as their own.
What follows is a Coen brothers storytelling trademark: spiraling circumstances that quickly start to ruin lives. In Raising Arizona, this web of events is crazy, yes, but relatively grounded in the reality of their situation. Ed’s rash decisions are rooted in her insane case of baby fever, while Hi’s criminal past keeps rearing its head in all kinds of ways, from the sudden appearance of his escaped prison friends, Gale and Evelle, to the resurgence of Hi’s thieving ways on a trip for something as simple as diapers. Of course, it also doesn’t help that Hi loses his job thanks to his rejection of his boss’s offer to swap wives. Oh, and there’s also the matter of the deranged bounty hunter, Leonard Smalls, that’s out to get Junior. Whether he wants to bring Junior home or sell him on the black market for profit is still pretty up in the air.
Things culminate in Ed and Hi, Gale and Evelle, and Smalls basically having a game of hot potato with poor Junior getting tossed around between them. Once Ed and Hi have a change of heart and return him to his rightful home, they still fantasize about having their own children one day, as well as supporting the child they’d grown to love. From a safe distance, of course.
Besides the genuinely bizarre set of events and inciting incidents in the film, Raising Arizona contains a set of great performances that perfectly match the tone of the film, adding to it without ever pulling attention away from the big picture. Nicolas Cage plays one of his best characters in Hi, giving him plenty of the hectic energy that he’s become known for while also playing the feeling of being trapped in the newfound freedoms of a released prisoner with a real emotional center that makes Hi a deeply sympathetic character. Just as excellent is Holly Hunter as his wife, Ed. Her performance walks the tightrope in finding the comedy within the tragedy of her character: a woman who wants a child but cannot have one. This pair of performances gives the film the emotional backbone that make the stakes really matter.
This crazy comedy was met with a certain degree of confusion from many of the critics of the time. There were claims of style taking too much precedence over the story itself, these directorial decisions started to make more sense in the context of more films from the Coens. Their films are all about a balance between style and content that hadn’t been explored by many popular directors, and especially not in comedies. By the time The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? came along, the world had adjusted to the Coens as influential directors, and these films had become touchstones of comedy filmmaking. The controlled chaos and warm heart of Raising Arizona, while initially jarring to some audiences, is just as worthy of a place in this pantheon of great comedies.