Sometimes It's a Hard World for the Little Things
Parents, have we ever stopped and really thought about why we made the decision to have children? We have no qualms about asking people why they don’t have children, but rarely direct such probing inquiries towards ourselves. We might be able to come up with some fumbling response like “I just have so much love to give,” or “children make the world a better place.” But really, let’s just admit it: often it’s rooted in obligation and self-interest. “Because it’s time.” “Because we have to carry on the family name.” “Because I wanted one.”
Selfishness and failing to see the forest for the trees are the themes of the Coen Brothers’ second feature, 1987’s Raising Arizona. Now, I’m not going to try to convince you that there’s some deeper, subtle meaning to it that perhaps most viewers didn’t catch. The Coens set out to deliberately make something as different in style and tone from Blood Simple as possible, and it’s all surface in favor of slapstick humor and some dizzying tracking shots. It’s a deeply charming, sweet-natured comedy, an anomaly in a time when comedies seemed to largely involve rich, hateful people clashing with other rich, hateful people. From a modern perspective, you can’t imagine such a fresh and lighthearted film being greeted with anything other than effusive praise, yet reviews at the time were mixed at best, with none other than Roger Ebert giving it one and a half stars, describing it as “forced and mannered.” He never warmed up to it, admitting in a 2000 blog post “I am assured at least weekly that I am wrong,” as he should have been. This is a movie that seems to get better with every viewing, balancing carefully cultivated quirkiness with genuine human warmth.
Our narrator, H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage), is trapped in the cycle of recidivism. He’s a “re-PEAT oh-fender,” always getting arrested for the same crime (robbery with an unloaded weapon, because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone), and doing time in the same prison, where he has the same cellmate and passes by the same man mopping the floor, who invariably growls at him. He even has the same cop taking his mugshot, Ed (Holly Hunter), the “desert flower” of his dreams. H.I. proposes to Ed and she accepts, though rarely has a couple seemed so mismatched from the start. Despite his criminal background, H.I. is carefree and guileless to the point of childlike, while Ed is high-strung and serious to the point of grimness. What they do have in common is a desire to live like normal, upstanding citizens, and they start that life together, in a mobile home that’s so cheaply made it’s nearly destroyed during a fight later in the movie. H.I. mentions that they live “outside of Tempe,” but it’s so remote that they might as well be on the moon. Nevertheless, they’re happy, at least for a time.
It quickly becomes apparent that H.I., even though he’s made a career out of holding people at (albeit unloaded) gunpoint, is meek and passive. It’s at Ed’s command that he get a job in a machine shop. It’s Ed who decides that it’s time for them to have a baby, and when they learn that they’re unable to conceive, it’s her idea to kidnap one of the famous Arizona quintuplets and raise it as their own. H.I. goes along with it, because he wants to be a respectable man, but the work that goes into maintaining that respectability weighs heavily on him. The fact that he’s kidnapped a child seems to bother him less than the idea that now he’s responsible for taking care of it.
H.I. and Ed get to enjoy being a nuclear family with baby Nathan Jr. for barely an hour before receiving unexpected guests, H.I.’s friends Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe), very recently escaped from prison. They represent one of the sides that H.I. feels torn between—the other is represented by Glen (Sam McMurray) and Dot (Frances McDormand), whom Ed refer to as “decent people,” even though they let their kids run around like wild animals. When Dot runs down the endless list of things new parents need to worry about—college funds, life insurance, bank accounts, vaccinations—H.I.’s shoulders visibly sag, and when Ed repeatedly asks “Have we done that, honey?” he can only respond with silent perplexment. He later confesses to Glen that he feels overwhelmed by all the new responsibilities thrust upon him, and Glen’s suggests that they try wife swapping.
Now, Gale and Evelle, they live a simpler life, untroubled by wives or children, or steady employment. “You’re young and you got your health, what you want with a job?” Evelle asks H.I. They know H.I. isn’t cut out for domestic life, and he realizes it too, as much as he wishes he was. Getting to choose between being a man and running away no longer becomes an option, however, once everyone starts figuring out just how H.I. and Ed managed to get a toddler from out of nowhere.
At its most basic elements, Raising Arizona isn’t treading new ground plot-wise. The “manchild who flails in the face of having to think of someone other than himself” trope is, regrettably, a cornerstone of screenwriting. What it lacks in comparison to other similar films is simmering resentment and hostility. It’s obvious that H.I. loves Ed, and wants to be the man she needs him to be, he just doesn’t know how (it’s worth pointing out that Nicolas Cage is only 22 here, which makes him a bit more sympathetic than, say, Adam Sandler at 47 in Grown Ups 2). Ed is working on a very strict timetable for her life, whereas H.I. doesn’t know anything about time except how to pass it in a jail cell. Even without taking into account the fact that they’ve committed kidnapping (an aspect of the plot that feels like it should be more important than it actually ends up being), they’re both right and they’re both wrong.
Despite working together to rescue Nathan Jr. from a monstrous bounty hunter who seems to have stepped right out of H.I.’s nightmares, it doesn’t seem like their marriage will survive. It’s only after it’s suggested that they sleep on it a night or two before deciding if they want to stay together that there’s a crumb of hope that things might work out, enough that H.I. dreams of the future. While he dreams of Nathan Jr., returned to his real parents, growing up to be a golden-haired football star, his dreams about himself and Ed are touchingly modest. Spending their senior years in a house that doesn’t look all that much nicer than the one they’re currently living in, they’re visited by their children and grandchildren for a celebratory feast that includes celery and peanut butter, and where they sit at the head of the table in chintzy plastic chairs. He dreams of living someplace “where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved,” and the naivete of that could break your heart. H.I still has a lot of growing up to do, but hopefully without the cynicism and bitterness that comes from living in a hard world.