With “Raising Arizona,” (selected theaters) the film-making Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan (“Blood Simple”), are with us again, with a jangling, breakneck farce about people who can’t have babies and people who have too many. The astonishing thing about “Raising Arizona” is how it can move so fast, be so loud and remain so relentlessly boring at the same time.
It comes swathed in a caul of superiority toward its characters, just plain folks, barely an inch over the level of the Snopeses. (The fact that “Raising Arizona” has a monumental pair of brothers named Snopes can be taken as something of a hint.)
Edwina and H. I. (Hi) McDonnough (Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage) are newlywed trailer dwellers somewhere in deep Road Runner country. Straw-haired, all-heart Hi has given new meaning to the word recidivist-- he can’t help it; he just has a thing about holding up 7-Elevens. Edwina (call her Ed) was his booking officer until the two fell splat in love and got married. Now all Ed wants is to have the baby that will make them a family. She can’t.
Meanwhile, on television where Nathan Arizona is the Unpainted Furniture King of the Southwest, and in a set that might have been left over from “True Stories,” the Arizona family, having indulged in fertility pills, have quintuplets. By bawling at the top of her lungs, Ed persuades Hi of the inequity of the situation. So Hi, who will do anything to keep the little woman happy and/or quiet, pops a ladder up to the Arizona nursery window one night and, what seems like eons later, emerges with what may be little Nathan Jr. Or it could be Harry, Barry, Larry or Garry.
There are very funny moments as Hi sets all five babies on the floor and they begin their escapes like a room full of diapered wind-up toys. Yet even as it makes us laugh, it’s a baffling scene: Given five identical babies to be snatched in a very limited time, why set each of them down in turn, to high-tail off in five different directions?
(We’ll ignore the behavior of the parents downstairs; they keep hearing peculiar noises in their darlings’ nursery and keep putting off investigating. Or the fact that this super-rich papa apparently has no nurse for his precious litter.)
Kidnaping the baby is only the beginning. In short order, the proud little family is pursued by old jailmates of Hi’s, Gale and Evelle Snopes (John Goodman and Bill Forsythe), avid for the reward money. The Snopes boys have tunneled out of jail and popped out of the ground into a mudhole, like bubbles in the Tar Pits, or like a metaphor for birth itself--carried further since these two squalling boobies have especially babylike faces.
Next in the chain of pursuit are the McDonnoughs’ challengingly fertile neighbors, Glen and Dot (Sam McMurray and “Blood Simple’s” Frances McDormand), who are into wife swapping and procreation. And finally, a figure literally pops out of Hi’s worst nightmare, the Wart Hog from Hell (Randall (Tex) Cobb), a biker fiend and bounty hunter. (Since he and Hi turn out to have the same tattoo on their biceps, you keep waiting for that to be a plot point, but it’s never developed.)
What feels so peculiar about “Raising Arizona” is that a movie around the subject of families and, especially, babies, remains so cool at its center. There is always the sense of the film makers’ superior distance from these maddened hayseeds.
And while it’s funny to watch each of these brutish guys go gaga over Baby Nathan Jr., the joke of their constantly leaving him behind, or driving off with him on the top of the car, or popping his little car seat on the front of a motorcycle like a bicycle basket is vaguely unpleasant even before it’s overused.
“Raising Arizona” is miraculously adept technically. Barry Sonnenfeld, who was the cinematographer on “Blood Simple,” outdoes himself here, in creeping-baby point of view shots and maddened Doberman’s eye-view shots. But it’s the dexterity of the kid from high school who was a whiz with a yo-yo, who could do Walking the Dog and Around the World and who knows what else. Sometimes, as the camera flings itself on an arc up and through a second-story window, through a bedroom and down and out of the house again, we begin to feel like that yo-yo ourselves.
But all this wizardry is in the service of really cretinous humor and a deeply condescending viewpoint. Contrast these trailer-dwellers with the pair in Jonathan Demme’s “Melvin and Howard": You knew that Demme cherished them. The Coens don’t cherish the McDonnoughs as fellow human beings--they manipulate them like cartoon figures and it’s hard to cherish a cartoon.
Nicolas Cage has crammed every ounce of sweet earnestness into Hi, and that is the sole quality is that makes the character work. (You get the feeling that he might not have known the Coens’ view of his character, might have believed the laughter was going to be with Hi, not at him.) Holly Hunter needs to be monumental, titanic in her hunger for maternity, in order to set this plot in motion believably. Imagine Bette Midler demanding her maternal rights. Instead, Hunter is small and brown-wrenish.
There will be people who will defend the Coens’ mayhem in the Coens’ own terms, that “Raising Arizona” contains the “basic elements of popular contemporary movie-making--babies, Harley Davidsons and high explosives.” But perhaps only the Coens would have thought of combining them so cunningly.
‘RAISING ARIZONA’ A Twentieth Century Fox release of a Circle Films presentation of a Ted and Jim Pedas/Ben Barenholtz production. Executive producer James Jacks. Producer Ethan Coen. Director Joel Coen. Screenplay Ethan and Joel Coen. Co-producer Mark Silverman. Camera Barry Sonnenfeld. Production design Jane Musky. Editor Michael R. Miller. Music Carter Burwell. Costumes Richard Hornung. With Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, Frances McDormand, Randall (Tex) Cobb, T. J. Kuhn.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.)