Director Spotlight: Raising Arizona
“It ain’t Ozzie and Harriet” – H.I. McDunnough
Raising Arizona is the strangest kidnapping movie I’ve ever seen, and the funniest.
H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) is a failure of a criminal. After multiple arrests following a string of failed convenience store robberies, he proposes to one of the corrections officers in the prison, and upon his next release marries her and settles down. Having married, H.I’s wife Edwina (Holly Hunter) has decided that the next natural step is to have a child.
But their dreams of family life are shaken when Ed learns that she’s barren. So she settles on the next rational course of action – she takes her ex-con husband to kidnap one of local furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona’s (Trey Wilson) new quintuplets.
As one of the Coen brothers’ earlier films, Raising Arizona is a brilliant success. The acting is superb, and the script is very well written. Nicolas Cage in particular lends a real sense of sincerity to Hi as he struggles to give Ed the life and respectability that she wants, even as he grows to doubt his ability to live the honest life she wants for them.
And almost as soon as they’ve gotten the baby home, H.I. and Ed find themselves surrounded by people who want to take the baby for themselves. Their troubles grow with the appearance of Leonard Smalls, a baby-seeking bounty hunter who’s determined to recover the tot for his father (if he’ll pay Smalls’ price) or for the black market (if he won’t). Smalls’ story is left tantalizingly open, along with hints that he was somehow born of H.I’s unconscious.
The Coens’ impress me most by the way that the movie switches tone between a goofiness that almost borders on slapstick, and a wry understatement that conveys more meaning than the dialog alone. One moment, Hi and Ed are fighting because H.I’s probably lost his job, and the next (after another failed convenience store robbery) they’re involved in one of the craziest chase scenes this side of the Blues Brothers.
Seeing this movie reminds me that Nic Cage has his roots in these quirky little comedies. He carries much of the movie with his portrayal of H.I., giving us a terminally flawed lead performance, but one portrayed with such humility and earnestness that despite his criminal tendencies, I want to see him prosper.
Raising Arizona is a high mark in Cage’s career, and helped to truly launch the Coens’ as writer/directors. To be honest, I didn’t know that this was one of their movies until I was told about this month’s spotlight. I just may have to look up some of their other films.