'Raising Arizona' rips Reagan, offers up sympathy for the underdog

The Coen Brothers would go on to make movies more grand than 1987's "Raising Arizona" and more "important" ones, and pretentious ones, too, but this rubbery, rip-roaring portrait of a well-meaning, oft-poetic, possibly prophetic redneck recidivist in the final years of Reagan's America is their most singular, sincere, and feverishly cartoon-like.

H.I., the aforementioned recidivist who is also seemingly sort of psychic (played by Nicolas Cage, who mixes the mannerisms of Woody Woodpecker and Robert Mitchum in "Thunder Road" with aplomb), and former cop Ed (played by Holly Hunter, carving out a character on the working class, hard-ass young women who know way more than the dudes spectrum along with Vienna in "Johnny Guitar," Peppermint Patty, and Brooklyn rapper Young M.A.) are a confused newlywed couple who can't have kids of their own, and so they steal one of five born to the Arizonas, a mega-rich family fronted by Nathan (Trey Wilson), an unpainted furniture magnate.

There's also Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe), greaser brothers and friends of H.I. who just escaped out of prison and want H.I. in on a bank robbery, and Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb), an evil bounty hunter biker in "Mad Max" cosplay out to collect a reward for the lost Arizona child. We're first introduced to Smalls in a dream H.I. has, but he later shows up in the real world, shooting lizards off rocks, blowing shit up, growling like a lion, extorting Nathan Arizona, and getting hit in the face with a board by H.I. himself.

The stretched-out joke of the movie is "What if somebody kidnapped a millionaire's baby not for ransom but just because they believed the millionaire had enough babies?" And like nearly everything in "Raising Arizona," the movie pedantically commits to its conceit for way too long until the joke becomes how dedicated it is to its weird world and super stupid humor. Also: everybody ultimately wants to keep the Arizona baby, even H.I.'s dirtbag pals who steal him from H.I. to collect the reward but fall in love and rename him "Gale Jr."—and endure the nightmare of parental responsibility when they twice accidentally leave the baby on the top of the car and drive away.

"Raising Arizona" recalls the mannered Americana of "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" and "True Stories" and predicts the melancholy, diorama-like comedies of Wes Anderson (particularly costume-wise, see: H.I.'s elegantly threadbare thermal or the ivory brooch Mrs. Nathan Arizona wears) and masculinity-skewering, modern Western "Breaking Bad" (men hatching schemes and yelling a lot and embarrassing themselves while women silently endure it all). More importantly though, it's the closest a live-action movie has gotten to a cartoon since the Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin collaborations of the '50s and '60s—with some help from Barry Sonnenfeld's stretchy cinematography and the "Blood Simple" shaky cam. A small cinematic detail both hilarious and stomach-churning: During an explosive fight inside of a trailer, a silly, Tex Avery-esque moment where H.I. scrapes his knuckles on the textured ceiling of the trailer as he winds up to bop Gale on the top of the head.

In the movie's tour-de-force, nearly 10-minute prologue, a pre-credits sequence that sets up how H.I. and Ed met—she was a cop who took his mugshot the numerous times he was arrested, and slowly they fell in love—we also get this little aside from H.I.: "I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that son of a bitch Reagan in the White House. I don't know. They say he's a decent man. So... maybe his advisers are confused." Now I won't make a case that "Raising Arizona" is "more relevant than ever" because of our incoming fascist, Reagan-but-dumber president Donald Trump, but it does show how critics then, who either praised the movie or damned it for its "style over substance" approach, missed some of what it had to say about the political climate of the '80s and have boosted it as an absurd cult comedy, skipping over its understanding of criminality, especially of the scrapping, hustling, fast-talking American sort. This type of depoliticization is all too typical. Try and see "Raising Arizona" as a movie that gives outlaws a playful noogie but understands their dark edge because it sees why family values are a farce—plain and clear during Reagan's reign as he vilified the poor, pretended AIDS didn't exist, gave weapons to Iran, and let crack seep into every nook and cranny of the inner city.

The Coens' flamboyant style and empathy for the underdog commingle best when H.I., after a lunch with friends of the family ends with the patriarch (and his boss) suggesting wife-swapping and H.I. punching him in the face, walks into a convenience store, grabs some diapers, and tries to rob the place—for no reason other than robbing people is what he does and the straight life is truly nagging at him. He fails, because the convenience store clerk's got a gun, too, and then he is chased through a suburban neighborhood by cops and then a few loose dogs through someone's house, then through a supermarket (cops and dogs still trailing him). H.I. is eventually scooped up by a very angry Ed, who doesn't get why he can't not screw up.

Following a showdown with the scary biker from H.I.'s dreams in the flesh, "Raising Arizona" gets heartwarming, you feel like a dick for laughing at these cracker characters a tiny bit and some things are left unsettled, though no longer upended. Its happy ending, mind you, is mostly another dream vision from H.I., so it hasn't happened—yet. We also know, seeing as how the Apocalyptic Biker was not only in dreams, that H.I.'s visions do tend to come true.

"Raising Arizona," directed by Joel Coen, screens at the Senator Theatre on Jan. 11, 15, 16, and 17.

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