It’s hard to imagine a sharper left turn taken by a director than from the Coen brother’s debut, Blood Simple, to their sophomore picture, Raising Arizona. Where Blood Simple was dark and mostly serious, Arizona is the closest a film has ever come to capturing a Tex Avery cartoon in live action – with the possible exception of some parts of The Mask.
in the role that possibly best combines his often underrated acting ability, comedic potential and trademark brand of insanity, Nicolas Cage gives one of my favourite performances of his as H. I. McDunnough (‘Hi’ for short), a serial petty convict whose ineptitude at evading the law is only matched by his love for police photographer Ed (Holly Hunter). On at least the third time Hi is released from the prison where Ed works he proposes, and the two settle down for a life of happiness in a trailer park in Arizona. But all is not well in the McDunnough household. When Ed discovers she is unable to have children she falls apart, not helped by Hi’s criminal background leaving them unsuitable for adoption, so the only logical solution is, of course, to kidnap one of a famous batch of quintuplets born to a local unpainted furniture magnet, Nathan Arizona. To add to Hi’s woes, two of his former cellmates, Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe) escape from prison and attempt to crash on the couple’s sofa, Hi’s boss at the metalworks attempts to entice him into swinging, and there’s Leonard Smalls (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb), a bounty hunter from Hell, on the path of the stolen baby.
This is a film with no intentions of meandering along at a gentle pace. The opening ten minutes or so, setting up the couple’s initial meetings, Hi’s triple incarcerations, their engagement and marriage, runs along at such a breakneck pace you’re liable to get whiplash once the credits roll and a more sedate step is taken. The change in speed is almost jarring, but is helped along with ample amounts of comedy and terrific, perfectly pitched performances, especially from Cage. His Hi, sporting a now standard ridiculous feathered hairdo, is a manic, OTT oddball with more Hawaiian shirts than sense. Hunter’s performance is good, but Ed doesn’t really get to do an awful lot other than reprimand Hi at every turn.
If the characters feel like exaggerated caricatures, then this is exactly the point. This film doesn’t take place in any kind of recognisable reality as much as it does in the heightened, prison-crazed mind of the lead. At times though I felt it went a little too far. The two escaped convicts are maybe a little too stupid – though often to hilarious results, as in their ill-planned bank robbery – and their incessant screaming throughout the entire film became beyond grating. No-one can yell like John Goodman. Leonard Smalls, on the other hand, wasn’t enough of a badass. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I always felt that he was a guy pretending, Cobb never inhabited the role quite as fully as I’d have liked, so his presence was very much under felt. It’s a shame, as the Coens can do great work with the right actors in the antagonist roles – check out Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, or Paul Newman’s Sidney J. Mussburger in The Hudsucker Proxy. Smalls should have been larger than life, and could have been the best part of the film, but remains sadly forgettable. Which in itself is impressive seeing as he is a guy who will happily grenade a fluffy bunny just for being alive.
The fight scenes are tremendously enjoyable, and really cement home the cartoonish nature of the film. Most of the characters involved would have received serious, possibly fatal injuries several times throughout the film – particularly Hi – yet they mostly just walk it off with little more than a plaster stuck to their face. And the film’s solitary death scene is so ridiculously over the top and insane that it is very much a moment of explosive comedy, regardless of whether you can see it coming or not.
I think that one of the overall messages from the film is that Hi and Ed, though they seem incredibly unsuitable to take on the task, are possibly the best parents of all the film’s characters. Of the various people who assume the role of the kidnapped baby’s guardian throughout the story, Hi and Ed are the only ones to not immediately name the baby after themselves. Granted, they name him after each other instead, but at least they’re thinking about someone else, not just themselves.
Whilst this is in no way one of the best Coen brothers film, it is still hugely entertaining and definitely worth a watch, if only to see some classic comic Cage before he went off the rails.
Choose film 8/10