What is the greatest Nicholas Cage movie of all time? The Coen Bros second feature film may very well be a contender. Every once in awhile, I see lists about the funniest films of the 1980s and I don’t recall seeing “Raising Arizona” on any of those lists. It should be. Set in the rural desert in Arizona (southwestern culture becomes a character in the Coen canon) and featuring a prison convict falling in love and getting married to his prison photographer, the terrain finds the Coens in pure screwball comedy mode.
Idiosyncratic dialogue, Biblical references, and occasional wild camerawork season this story revolving around H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) settling down with Edwina “Ed” (Holly Hunter) after the prison stint. They reside in their mobile home out in the rural desert of Arizona and tragically learn they cannot have children. Adoption is out of the question as well because of McDunnough’s criminal record. Here we get an economic lesson from the film: it is so unfair that some people have so much and others so little.
The wealthy Nathan Arizona, Sr (Trey Wilson) and his wife, Florence Arizona (Lynne Dumin Kitei) have five children. McDunnough and Edwina judge this is too many kids for them to have and they should share so they hatch a plot to kidnap one of the children to have one of their own. The couple escapes from the Arizona home with one of the babies.
Randomly entering the movie shortly thereafter, the lone biker of the apocalypse Leonard Smalls (played with a menace by Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) roaring on his motorcycle down an otherwise deserted patch of southwestern road (straight out of hell presumably). Out of a cloud of smoke, his motorcycle flying through the air only to land on the pavement, the lone biker is armed with big guns, features grenades attached to his vest and is decorated with tattoos. He lobs grenades at wildlife and shoots lizards on rocks as he rolls past. Naming his price at $50,000, he offers to find Mr. Arizona’s missing child which puts him on a collision course with McDunnough and Edwina.
One of the funniest sequences that the Coens’ have ever done happens a little ways into the film when McDunnough goes into a grocery store to steal diapers. Donning a nylon stocking over his head, he attempts to hold up the store but things go awry and he finds himself running from police with a cop hanging out of his police car window firing at him, an eager teenager with braces holding a magnum, packs of dogs that he attracts along the way and all of this while carrying a pack of diapers. The soundtrack music during this sequence features yodeling by John R Crowder. When I first saw this scene, I laughed so hard that I’m not sure I have ever laughed harder in a movie. It is Coen magic where they are at their most zany and insane.
Things eventually get resolved, we get voiceover narration over the final scenes and the final line is just about perfect when held up to everything that has come before. The most hilarious movie in the Coen canon? One can certainly make a valid case.
Next: “Miller’s Crossing”- a prohibition-era gangster film done Coen-style and also vastly underrated.
Ranking of Coen Bro Movies:
Blood Simple (my review is here).