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Raising Arizona (1987)

by on 2011/04/25

“In a land not too far away, where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved.”

* * * * *

Question: When are child kidnapping, infertility and criminal recidivism funny?

Answer: When these prickly subjects are crammed lovingly into a pair of sheer nylon stockings by the Brothers Coen to create one of my favourite movies about baby and child care – Raising Arizona.

About 15 years ago, if you were to ask me what film made my top ten favourite films of all time, this parable about family, relationships and child rearing would have made the list without hesitation. Since then, I have watched hundreds of movies, hundreds of hundreds in fact, and surprising even to me, there’s Raising Arizona still resting in my top ten.

The ending never fails to make me weep like a baby.

No, it is not the Coen brothers most polished, restrained, subtle or technically brilliant work.  But as the resident goth of the site, I make decisions based on fiery emotion, with bright red borscht and Old World vengeance flowing in my veins, so I’m giving this film a perfect score based on my love. My angry, irrational love.

Yes, that’s right, you heard me.

The premise? H.I. McDonnough, played by Nicolas Cage (Next), never met a convenience store he didn’t rob. Edwina “Ed” is played by the wonderful Holly Hunter (Crash). Ed is a decorated cop with a tendency toward monosyllabic commands and a charmingly stony expression. The two meet (repeatedly thanks to H.I.’s inability to stop knocking off stores) fall in love, marry and try for a “critter.”

H.I. even gets a day job. A really bad one. (I do wonder of late if there is any other kind).

Unfortunately, despite a serious amount of trying for a baby in their aluminum trailer “starter home,” they soon discover Ed is infertile. Or as H.I. sensitively puts it: “Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” The couple’s attempts to adopt are halted by H.I.’s checkered *coughjailbird* past.

Desperate for a child, they seize upon a newspaper story about the birth of quintuplets to furniture salesman Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and decide to steal themselves a toddler.

Then things really go wrong.

The cast of colourful, filth-encrusted supporting characters are incredible. John Goodman (Barton Fink) delivers a performance that is howling and elemental, he’s a force of nature as the escaped prisoner Gale Snoats. God, I love this man.

Randall “Tex” Cobb as the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, Leonard Smalls, is similarly affecting. Smalls looks like he’s clawed his way up from hell via a broken British Petroleum oil pipeline.

But wait, there’s more. How about the singularly awful, awful family who seem to have children spilling out of their rusty station wagon by the dozen in the form of H.I.’s horrendous boss Glen (Sam McMurray) and his equally foul wife Dot (played by the incomparable Frances McDormand).  The neglected, ill-behaved children to this unfairly fertile couple are enough to make you rethink procreation.

Yes, there’s broad physical comedy falling off ladders, leaping over crib railings and bursting out of the mud. Yes, Nicolas Cage as H.I., the twitchy, spiky-haired repeat offender, plays it like walking, talking, breathing, falling, screaming Looney Tunes character.

But there’s a thoughtful premise to be found amongst the trailer park wrestling matches, sewer main prison breaks, aerial baby attacks and hayseed bank robberies. This film asks us: who among us is good/prepared/moral enough to be parent?

The answer is pretty much no one. The kidnapped baby’s father Nathan Arizona seems more worried about his business than his missing son. Gale Snoats (Goodman) and his idiot brother Evelle (William Forsythe) keep leaving the baby on the roof of their getaway car. H.I. and Ed selfishly rip the boy from their natural parents in their frenzied quest for children.

Yet, despite the deeply flawed characters and worrying/constant child endangerment, we are left with a hopeful feeling that as long as there is love, caring and even incompetent efforts to try, children will turn out just fine.

I love Raising Arizona, always and forever.

* * * * *

94 minutes

PG 13 for a baby driving in the front seat of car, without a safety seat (!!!), and for a man wearing a panty on his head

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