Like Fargo, Raising Arizona is full of scarily incompetent criminals. Unlike Fargo, where most of the humor arises out of the accents of the populace of Minnesota, and the in-eloquence of the criminals who prey on them, the humor in this movie comes from the erudition, and articulateness, of people of low social standing. Where speech is used in Fargo to articulate a person’s low social status, or their fall from a higher one, in Raising Arizona, its used for the opposite effect.
The movie stars Nicholas Cage as H.I. McDunnough, Holly Hunter as his wife, Edwinna, and John Goodman as his ex-con best friend, Gale. Hi is a lifelong petty criminal, who is just as incompetent and hapless as Jerry Lundegaard, with the same attitude of quiet desperation. Raising Arizona is the Coen Brothers major film debut, so its full of camera flourishes and humor, that has somewhat calmed by the time they direct Fargo, although the characters and plot are just as crazy. I like to think of Fargo as a more mature version of Raising Arizona, and Jerry Lundegaard is a more grownup, sedate version, of Hi. The Lundegaards are who Hi and Edwinna would have become if things had gone well for the two of them.
This movie also differs from Fargo, by being heavily narrated by Hi, whereas there’s no narration in Fargo, and I would like to believe that there’s some wonderful access to Hi’s thought processes, except Hi is an unreliable narrator. The way he tells the story is full of visual and narrative flourishes that make me half think that more than a little of it is just made up in his head.
Since Hi is an exceptionally well spoken ex-con, more than a bit of the humor comes from Hi’s lofty descriptions of himself, and his situations, coupled with, what I like to call, “downspeak”, where he juxtaposes a college level vocabulary, with regular street slang. Once again the Coen Brothers are using language to bring attention to the social position, and in this case, social aspirations of the characters. Hi, Edwinna, and Gale, all aspire to middle class social positions, that they’ll never be able to reach, as all of them are too ill equipped, or in Edwinna’s case, too beset by personal weakness, to ever acquire that lifestyle. Where Jerry Lundegaard is very comfortably settled in his middle class lifestyle, Hi and Edwinna only dream about having that kind of life, and it is their desire to attain that lifestyle, that sets the plot in motion.
Edwinna wants a baby to complete their family unit, but isn’t capable. As Hi explains, “Her insides were a rocky place, where my seed could find no purchase.” These misguided lovers decide to steal one of the Arizona Quints, newly born to Nathan Arizona, the owner of a furniture franchise called Unpainted Arizona. As a result, Hi and Ed find themselves on the run from law enforcement, Hi’s old friend Gale and his brother Evelle, and a vicious bounty hunter, (who wasn’t actually hired by Nathan), named Richard Smalls.
Hi had been in an out of prison because he is a thoroughly incompetent, small time, stickup man. He is almost compulsory in his need to to rob convenience stores, and seemingly does it entirely on impulse, never planning ahead, or taking into account what might go wrong, which seems to be another commonality he shares with Jerry Lundegaard, who was a compulsive liar. He is just a horrible decision maker, so when Ed suggests they kidnap one of the Arizona babies, Hi is on board with it, neither of them stopping to consider that it might be a bad idea. Or even that Hi might not be able to competently carry out said idea.
One of the movies signature, action, show pieces, of Hi’s lack of planning skills, is Hi, under stress, deciding to rob some diapers from a local store, just after they kidnap the baby. From Edwinna leaving with his car, to angry store owners, trigger happy cops, and a pack of overstimulated dogs, everything that possibly can, and even a few things that shouldn’t, goes horribly wrong, and Hi has to do some serious highstepping to stay just ahead of all his pursuers.The entire movie is really just one long chase, with the baby, Nathan Jr. , as the film’s McGuffin, (the one thing, of seemingly great importance, that everyone desires.)
Normally, people pan Narration in movies, but Raising Arizona raises the bar because Hi’s narration is deeply funny, imaginative, self-deprecating, and engaging, and it helps that Hi’s outer “voice” remains true to the character’s speaking voice. Hi has a lofty view of himself, while acknowledging his many mistakes, which makes him endearing, rather than simply annoying. He doesn’t engage in a lot of self reflection, but what is there, gives you some idea of how his mind works. Hi isn’t an evil man. He’s not really dumb either. He’s just thoroughly clueless, and personally weak.
When the film was released, critics panned it, and even Roger Ebert missed the point of the films ‘hi-falutin” dialogue, saying that it was simply not the way that former criminals (who reside in trailer parks) actually speak. But that’s the whole point. The character’s dialogue is not meant to be a reflection of the type of lives they already lead. Its meant to be a dumb person’s idea of how smart people speak, and the type of lives they WANT to lead. Hi, because of his lowly status as an ex-con, wants other people to think of him as being more than that.
The future dream that Hi talks about at the end of the movie is his dream of a middle class, suburban lifestyle, with lots of children, grandchildren, and a lavish feast set before him, as he performs his grand patriarchal duty of carving the turkey. Notice during this scene that Hi doesn’t speak the way he normally does during the rest of the movie. His narration sounds educated and intelligent. He seems calmer, certainly his narration seems less frantic than in the rest of the movie. He has, at least in the dream, achieved the status he ‘s always wanted.
It looks like Hi and Edwinna are in a world of trouble after the kidnapping, and Ed has threatened to leave him, claiming he’s a bad influence on her, but I believe Hi’s dream, and his different manner of narration illustrates that maybe he’s learned a valuable lesson from the whole adventure.
It fills me with hope that things will work out for him, and maybe someday, he an Edwinna will achieve the life they’ve longed for. Hi will no longer have to pretend to be a bigger, better man, because he already is.
3 thoughts on “Speaking of Crime: Raising Arizona (1987)”
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Raising Arizona is a classic. Makes me laugh every time. Great post.
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I haven’t seen this movie in a long time, but its one of my favorites. I love this analysis. It sheds new light on of my favs that I never thought much about. I’m gonna have rewatch it now. I never noticed the speech patterns.
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