A few months ago singer-songwriter David Byrne of Talking Heads made a movie all about the loopiest American customs and people. It was True Stories, and while Byrne flashed an interesting visual style, the movie was so slow and smug that it really didn’t score its points.
Byrne might learn something from Raising Arizona. This mad new film shares some of the same subjects as True Stories, including the caricatured characters, rural setting, and an arch camera sense. But from the first few seconds of Raising Arizona – even from the title – you know this film sprints to its own demented drummer.
But how could it not? This is the second film from the incorrigibly clever Coen brothers, Joel (the director) and Ethan (the producer – they collaborate on the scripts). Their maiden film, Blood Simple, was merely one of the most outrageous movies of the decade. It wrung insane gallows humor out of a convoluted film noir story.
Raising Arizona is a flat-out comedy. And it moves at a flat-out pace; in the first 10 minutes or so, we’re swept through an eccentric narration about a lowlife armed robber (Nicolas Cage), his repeated jail terms, and his whirlwind romance with the police officer (Holly Hunter) who snaps his picture during booking procedures. They are married and move to a shack “in the Tempe suburbs” – a cactus-strewn wasteland – and enjoy their salad days while contemplating an expanded family unit.
But one day the wife returns from a doctor’s appointment and announces, sadly, “Ah’m barren.” They can’t adopt because of the husband’s prison record. They’re disconsolate, until they read about a local couple who have just had quintuplets. Perhaps one of the toddlers might be spared….
That’s the first 10 minutes. After they kidnap one of the babies, are paid a visit by two of Cage’s imbecilic prison buddies (John Goodman, the bachelor from True Stories, and William Forsyth), and encounter a monolithic bounty hunter (Randall “Tex” Cobb) who must be on the loose from a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, things start to heat up.
It’s all basically silly and satiric, but the Coen brothers know how to have fun. The whole opening sequence has the comic self-assurance of a Preston Sturges movie, which also means it counts on the intelligence of the audience to keep up with it. And in the middle of the movie they let fly with one of the funniest car chases ever put on film, as a routine stop for diapers becomes a crazy confusion of cars, guard dogs, and Cage running through the streets with a pair of nylons over his head.
The Coens also find time for the daft aside. After the two escaped cons kidnap the baby themselves, they stop for supplies. One picks up a bag of balloons, and asks the cashier, “Hey, do these balloons blow up in funny shapes?” The old coot behind the counter says, “Nope.” Beat. “Not unless you think round is funny.” There’s certainly nothing round about this movie.
First published in the Herald, April 1987
Hey, how’d it take so long for me to post my review of Raising Arizona? I would hope that even the great David Byrne would give the Coens the advantage on my comparison. Watching this movie for the first time a week before it opened – I recall it was at the tiny, uninspiring Northwest Preview Room – I remember wondering, during the opening extended sequence, about why more movies couldn’t be like this. Repeated viewings have not dimmed the pleasure, even if the late-reels departure into surrealism signaled a direction that the Coens would mine with much better success later in their careers.