Weekend Film Recommendation: Raising Arizona

The 1987 movie Raising Arizona is a zany, funny ride

raising_arizona060Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase

In terms of dialogue in American film, we are a long way from Preston Sturges and Ben Hecht. Between the audience becoming younger and the market more international, artful talking has largely been replaced by car chases, explosions and slapstick. Yet in their second film, the amazing Coen Brothers somehow managed to write a passel of quotable lines combined with car chases, explosions and slapstick. The result was zany comic brilliance: 1987’s Raising Arizona.

The plot: Sad sack, inept criminal H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) thinks his life may be turning around when he weds a no-nonsense police officer named “Ed” (Holly Hunter). But when they discover she can’t have children, they despair for their future. However, a prominent local family is blessed with quintuplets..surely they wouldn’t miss one if someone happened to steal it?

The dialogue, as in other of the Coens’ films (e.g., O Brother, Where Art Thou?), is funny precisely because the quasi-Biblical sesquipedalian lines are voiced by characters who have room temperature IQ. This is coupled with Barry Sonnenfeld’s manic, aggressively silly camerawork, Wile E. Coyote-level chase sequences and WWF-style fights. The over-the-top-and-then-some style of the humor didn’t completely click with audiences and critics at the time, but the film has since accrued deserved respect as a minor classic of American cinema comedy.

Nicholas Cage apparently didn’t get along with the Coens on the set and his acting is one-note here (They found their perfect star later in George Clooney). But Holly Hunter, in her career breakout year, is both hilarious and sympathetic throughout. I would put her performance here in a tie for her best ever (along with her star turn as a not entirely different character in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom). In supporting roles, Trey Wilson does rapid fire dialogue as well as Jimmy Cagney, and Sam McMurray gets big laughs as Hi’s boss, a would-be wife-swapper who keeps trying to to tell Polack jokes, but is too stupid to remember the punchlines.

I discovered the Coen Brothers by accident, in an art house theater that was showing a new low budget film made by two unknowns. That film was their superb tale of murder and intrigue, Blood Simple. I am given to understand that they decided in their second time out to make a film that was utterly different from their first in all respects. That showed some artistic courage, and my oh my was it well-warranted.

p.s. Look fast for a reference to my favorite film, Dr. Strangelove, during a scene in a men’s restroom.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Raising Arizona”

  1. One of the Coens’ lesser films, but I mean that as an immense compliment.
    I’m actually partial to Cage’s acting here. I guess the one-note went along with the room temperature IQ for me.
    Did you notice that when he sits, it’s with his legs at 180 degrees? A nice touch.

    But you’re right that so much of the humor comes from smart lines from stupid (?) characters.
    “Well, factually, …”
    “And, as per usual, l wouldn’t be surprised if the source of the marital friction weren’t financial.”
    “Fair price. That’s not what you say it is. That’s what the market will bear.”

  2. My favorite line is from John Goodman:

    “So many social engagements, so little time.” Said with a cigarette in one hand, and a spoonful of “cereal flakes” in the other. Hilarious!

  3. I much admire the reference to Flannery O’Connor’s short story Revelation with Ed’s line:

    “Give me that baby, you warthog from hell.”

  4. Don’t overlook Tex Cobb’s inspired performance as Leonard Smalls.

    “You wanna find a Dunkin’ Donuts, ask a cop.”

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