EMPIRE ESSAY: Raising Arizona Review

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When a childless couple of an ex-con and an ex-cop decide to help themselves to one of another family's quintuplets, their lives get more complicated than they anticipated.


Coen brothers' Rule No. 1: there are no rules. And Raising Arizona, possibly the most undervalued of their eclectic canon, is no exception. Is it all just a dream? Certainly our hero himself asks, "Was it wishful thinking? Was I just fleeing reality, like I know I'm liable to do ?" Is it simply the product of one man's overactive imagination? The constant references to Ronald Reagan — someone well known for his inability to distinguish between fiction and reality — would seem to suggest so. Or maybe even a political satire, picking away at the American Dream of the yuppie 80s? As always with a Coen brothers' movie, Raising Arizona is all of these things and none of them. But, as always with a Coen brothers' movie, it remains a wonderfully surreal, hilarious joy. At face value, the plot centres around odd couple H.I. (Cage), a bungling ex-con, and his wife Ed (Hunter), the police line-up photographer who has taken his picture on more occasions than she can remember. On discovering that they're unable to have children, or — as H.I. "You can just call me 'Hi'" puts it — that "her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase," the perfectly cast pair decide the only sensible option is to steal someone else's. And having relieved a local crook/entrepreneur of one of his quintuplets (figuring him to be "somewhat overloaded" in the infant department) along with the "bible" that is Dr. Spock's Baby And Child Care, they embark on an adventure of thrills, spills and beautifully pitched humour.

Throughout, however, the unlikely "family unit" is plagued by adversity. All of which arguably stems from Hi's own subconscious. Most notable is Leonard Smalls, The Lone Biker Of The Apocalypse "especially hard on the little things" who is Hi's sinister alter ego, a demon straight from the back of his tiny mind. The personification of Hi's fears, Smalls (a tribute to Of Mice And Men's Lenny Smalls) is his direct opposite, similar only in the Woody Woodpecker tattoo they both share. Likewise, Gale (Goodman) and Evelle (Forsythe), Hi's escaped prison buddies, could represent his worries over the responsibilities of fatherhood. Their "birth" scene in particular, as they emerge screaming from the mud, and their eventual return back to the "womb" of the prison walls, reflecting Hi's wildly differing states of mind.

But as much as one can read a multitude of subtexts into what is only the Coens' second feature, whatever way you look at it, one thing's for sure: it's unashamed, frantic fun. Exploring a genre they've only since revisited with The Big Lebowski (although, look out for early signs of O Brother's pomade fixation), they make the most of a sumptuous location (one that's Fargo's geographical flipside), orchestrate a series of superb chases (the nappy sequence is truly timeless), and achieve a slapstick treat so charming that, more often than not, it feels as if it's from another era altogether. "What's most appealing about not tying yourself down to particular It refuses to be bound by genre convention, from prison movie to gangster, screwball to Spaghetti Western, no stone is left unturned period boundaries," explained Ethan, "is it somehow removes everything from reality."

Then, of course, there's that sublime dialogue. "And it seemed real," dreams Hi. "It seemed like us. And it seemed like... Well, our home. If not Arizona, then a land, not too far away, where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved... I dunno, maybe it was Utah." Or, "There's right and there's right, and never the twain shall meet." Or, "Name's Smalls. Leonard Smalls. My friends call me Lenny... Only I ain't got no friends." Or... Well, we could be here all day. In-jokes abound, with nods towards Evil Dead (which Joel edited for old buddy Sam Raimi), The Shining's REDRUM reflection gimmick and even Larry Cohen's It's Alive. Carter Burwell's wonderful score zips at a breathtaking pace, while Barry Sonnenfeld's cinematography revels in Arizona's wide open landscapes.

Oh, and those still harping endlessly on that Coen movies don't have a heart? What of Nathan Arizona Snr.'s climactic speech? And Hi's post-sunset "That was beautiful" ? Pah. Positively anarchic in its influence on the 80s' trend towards family oriented movies (Baby Boom, Three Men And A Baby, Look Who's Talking), Raising Arizona refuses to be bound by generic convention. From prison movie to gangster, screwball comedy to Spaghetti Western, no stone is left unturned. Hell, even the apocalyptic likes of Mad Max get a look in. But whether it's turning stereotypes on their head, or simply reducing its audience to uncontrolled bouts of laughter (Evelle: "Do these [balloons] blow into funny shapes and all?" Shopkeeper: "Well, no. Unless round is funny"), it's a movie that is as effective today as it was two decades ago. And why not? As Joel himself puts it, it has all the essential elements of modern cinema: "Babies, Harleys and explosives". Who could ask for anything more?

Unbelievably funny.