Hidden Netflix Gems: Raising Arizona

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: Raising Arizona (1987)

Even if you haven’t heard of Joel and Ethan Coen, you’ve sure as hell heard of some of their films. The brothers have jointly written, directed, and produced such modern classics as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit. Their work bounces around in time, space, and genre—the Coens never make the same movie twice—and they’ve been renowned for it over the past three decades, with 13 Academy Award nominations and four wins.

Before all those accolades, the Coen brothers made their debut with 1984’s Blood Simple, a neo-noir thriller. Not wanting to make a reputation as one-trick ponies, they avowed to make to their next project as different from their first as possible. Out of that desire, the one-of-a-kind screwball comedy Raising Arizona was born.

Our protagonist is Herbert I. “Hi” McDonnough, played by the polarizing Nicolas Cage, who can make or break a movie depending on whether or not he fits his character. Hi is the type of lovable nitwit that often fills Coen fare: an erudite idiot reminiscent of Lebowski’s Dude, if he’d been born in an Arizona trailer park and had a penchant (though not necessarily a skill) for robbing 24-hour convenience stores. Luckily, Cage slips into Hi’s skin masterfully, right down to the wacky hairdo and funny accent (“Temp-ee, Arizona”). The performance remains one of his best to date, although ultimately Adaptation takes the cake.

Opposite Cage is Holly Hunter as the tight-lipped policewoman, Edwina or “Ed,” who’s always taking the recidivist Hi’s mugshot photos. After one particularly fateful arrest, Hi finds Ed in tears and learns that her fiance has left her. He proposes after his latest release from prison, and the two get married and move into a tiny trailer in the Arizona desert, which Hi lovingly calls a “suburban starter home.” One of the film’s many sources of comedy is the contrast between the upbeat world of Hi’s narration and that of the more objective reality we see on screen.

Hi does his best to “stand up and fly straight” after settling into married life, getting a job in a machine shop, but finds it difficult “with that darned Reagan in the White House.” Nonetheless, as time passes, the couple want to take the logical next step and start a family. Unfortunately, “biology is against them,” as they receive the unhappy news that Edwina is “barren,” and they’re denied the chance to adopt because of Hi’s criminal record.

But they come up with a plan when they hear that local celebrity and unfinished furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife have been blessed with not one but five infant sons—the “Arizona Quints.” Hi and Ed (mostly Ed) decide that the Arizonas have more than they can handle, and that it would be no great sin to take just one of them (Nathan Jr.) for their own. As you might imagine, things go comically south from there.

More and more, the circumstances of life seem to call Hi back to his criminal ways: he and Ed receive a visit from his prison buddies Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe), who “released themselves of their own recognizance” because they “felt the institution no longer had anything to offer them,” and Hi loses his job after assaulting his supervisor, Gale (Sam McMurray), who proposes a swapping of wives. Meanwhile, a bounty hunter named Leonard Smalls, the “Lone Biker of the Apocalypse,” rides right out of Hi’s nightmares and into his waking life in search of Nathan Jr. The film climaxes with what Bullz-Eye’s Jason Zingale  calls the “best chase sequence in movie history.”

Between the gun-toting store clerks, the cop, the dogs and the screaming shoppers – all scored to yodeling bluegrass music – with Cage running through it all as if he’s on a morning jog, the chase is 16 different flavors of crazy. Holly Hunter’s subsequent rant after she picks up Cage (how she knew where to find Cage, though, is a mystery) is even funnier, as she reminds him that “everything’s chayyyyyynged!” now that they have a child.

Though at times uneven and oddly paced, you’d be hard pressed to find a movie more originally, oddly funny than Raising Arizona. And if you’re any kind of movie buff, the film is a great look back at the Coen brothers’ burgeoning style. Certified fresh with a 90 percent rating on the Tomatometer, people will call Raising Arizona all sorts of things, but I don’t think anyone would argue it’s not pure entertainment.

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday.