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Outlandish parental tale from the Coen brothers, 'Raising Arizona' review

By Michael Murphy,
This early comedy from Joel & Ethan Coen is one of the filmmaking brothers' finest works

Me encanta como Ed le dice a Edwina que pose para la cámara j... on Twitpic

Filmmaking brothers Joel & Ethan Coen have one of the more interesting careers to analyze among big time Hollywood directors. Their nearly 30 year career contains an immaculate collection of groundbreaking and innovative films in a multitude of genres including comedy (light and dark), thriller, noir, horror, and western. They're impeccable talent as both writers and directors percolates through all of their work making their films definitively their own and easily distinguishable from other films of the same type or genre. The Coens' excellence has been acknowledged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for their acclaimed films like Fargo and No Country For Old Men, but their filmography also includes great and classic films like Burn After Reading, Miller's Crossing, A Serious Man, True Grit and The Big Lebowski. The Coen brothers were part of an important wave of film directors that proved their auteurism through highly independent motion pictures before being invited by major film studios to produce other works. In addition to their debut film, Blood Simple, their sophomore feature, Raising Arizona is an outlandish comedy that solidified the Coens as competent and dependent film directors.

Raising Arizona stars Nicolas Cage as H.I. 'Hi' McDonnough, a felon who, based on the brilliant prologue that proceeds the film's opening credits, has returned to the state prison multiple times after spontaneously robbing convenience stores and has developed a crush on the pretty policewoman who takes his picture and fingerprints every time Hi returns to the slammer. After realizing that he must turn his life around, he proposes to Edwina, or 'Ed' as she prefers to be called (Holly Hunter in one her first roles) and plans to marry her immediately after his next parole. After their marriage, Hi and Ed live in a secluded area in their trailer home and plan that the next logical step is to have a baby, but Ed discovers that she's tragically barren and the adoption agency declines their request to adopt a child due to Hi's checked past with the law. Distraught and worried, the loving couple begin to think that their future as a family unit may never expand beyond just Hi and Ed, but then one day they turn on the TV and learn of the births of the Arizona Quints: Quintuplets born to a scheming entrepreneur, Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), who is quoted in the newspaper as saying that him and his wife have "too much to handle." Therefore, Hi and Ed decide that the intelligent choice of action is to steal one of Arizona's newborns and raise the child as their own. Their decision leads to a bizarre sequence of events that includes two escaped felons who seek refuge at Hi's home, Hi's imbecile of a boss who almost reveals Hi's baby secret, and a bounty hunter/motorcycle demon from Hell who haunt's Hi's dreams and is hired to return the baby to his parents.

On paper, Raising Arizona sounds like a crazed mess of a film, but when presented by Joel & Ethan Coen, it's cinematic brilliance. Raising Arizona is seriously hilarious. It's the Coens' doing outlandish comedy at its best. The Coens' other comedies involve a grisly crime element (like Fargo and The Big Lebowski) thus categorizing them as dark comedies, but Raising Arizona is light and enjoyable. The plot is staggeringly original and plays out in ways that no viewer could anticipate. Every turn, twist, and progression is straight from left field; when Raising Arizona shouldn't work, it does, flawlessly.

While the Coens' are the backbone to Arizona's greatness, Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter are just as crucial to the film's success. Cage, in recent years, has become an actor synonymous with badness. He began as such a promising young actor, but once the 21st Century came around his film choices became worse and worse and he has all but completely been relegated to the realm of direct-to-video film star. This film is one of the examples proving that Cage was once a great actor; Hi is one of the actor's finest film roles. Every motion Hi makes and every sentence he speaks is done so perfectly by Cage, it's no wonder that he was considered the next big thing. With films like Rumble Fish, , Leaving Las Vegas and Face/Off being released before or after Arizona, it's monumentally disappointing to see Cage in films like The Wicker Man, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and Season of the Witch. Given the right role, Cage can still deliver (Adaptation. and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) but Cage's work in Arizona will never be matched. The petite and sprightly little Holly Hunter can thank the Coens for beginning her career with this film (she was living with the two of them and Frances McDormand at the time production began) and she's absolutely fantastic as Ed. Her comedic timing is spot-on and her twangy southern accent is undeniably cute. She's an actress that can attract with her smile but can intimidate with her dramatic intensity. Raising Arizona was the first of a trifecta of great films for Hunter, Broadcast News and The Piano followed and she won a Best Actress Oscar for the latter. The two stars possess incredible chemistry and they are enthralling to watch interact together on screen. They don't always agree (close to never, actually) but their love for one another is so strong that they stick together through all the ridiculous hardships that transpire during this film. They also lead an all around talented supporting cast including John Goodman, William Forsythe and Frances McDormand.

The technical work of this film is also highly notable. The Coens' writing and directorial work is unparalleled. Though their skill as directors has improved over the last few decades, their fluid camerawork here is phenomenal. One chase scene that spans from a convenience store to a suburban backyard to the interior of a suburban home and finally to a grocery store is awesomely edited and handled by the filmmakers. It's frenetic pacing adds to the sequence's hilarity, as does Carter Burwell's yodelling and banjo-heavy score. Their fast moving visual style is what makes this comedy move at 100 miles per hour, never wasting a moment and capturing fantastic timing for all their amazing dialogue and Coen-ian nuances. Though they are considered nuances now, when this film was released in 1987 they were considered innovations, soon-to-be benchmark elements of the Coens' filmmaking style, like interestingly conceived action set pieces. Nevertheless, other stylistic choices, like the incredibly campy sets, are elements only associated with this film since their later works incorporate breathtaking cinematography showcasing real locations (director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld, was replaced by Roger Deakins in the 1990s). Raising Arizona is incomparable to any other comedy, let along any other Coen brothers film.

The Coen brothers' second film, Raising Arizona, was released in 1987 to mostly positive reviews naming the Coen brothers as the directing duo to pay strict attention to in the coming years. They exploded on to the scene around the same time, and in the same fashion, as other contemporary greats like Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez. Raising Arizona has since become a fan favorite among the Coens' work and a film that is constantly revisited to overwhelmingly positive results. Though this film is one of their finer works, it has become a hidden gem since the Coens' comeback in 2007 with their multi-Oscar winning No Country For Old Men and their fantastic recent work that followed. I urge viewers to seek out Raising Arizona for it showcases today's stars at their earliest and best with some of the best independent writing and directing ever. It's an original, enjoyable, and hysterical film that cemented Joel & Ethan Coen into the pantheon of great Hollywood directors and allowed them to make more mesmerizing work.

10/10

 
 

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