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 Between the audience becoming younger and the market more international, artful talking has largely been replaced by car chases, explosions and slapstick.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.