36 Years Ago, Nicolas Cage Made One Of The Most Underrated Parenting Movies Ever
This early Coen brothers movie is hysterical, and the actors are at their deadpan best.
My teen discovered The Big Lebowski through a friend from middle school, and that set our family off on a Coen brothers kick. My husband and I wanted to screen Raising Arizona, which dates back to 1987. But all I could remember about it was that Nicolas Cage steals a baby and has to give it back.
Other nostalgia-fueled family movie nights had failed us. Please don't show kids the sexually perverted Beetlejuice of 1988 or risk them thinking you're a sicko. (Surely the one being made now, Beetlejuice 2, set for 2024, will be better!) My husband also regrets making our teens watch 1982's Blade Runner, which he remembered as... something not-so-rapey.
Great news: Raising Arizona holds up. The characters are flawed in a way that was pretty ahead of its time. They're terrible, but also hilarious. They just want a baby! There's a lot of swearing (so it's a no-go if you don't want to hear "son-of-a-b*tch" on repeat). There's boffo violence (shots are fired many times but never hit anyone, fist fights result in injury but not gore, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse throws a grenade at a bunny — and later karma gets him back). But much of the movie is Cage's character doing deadpan narration, dryly recounting his road to love, marriage, and baby carriage.
Kids appreciate the slapstick physical comedy.
It's hard not to laugh when one dog breaks free of its yard and races through the town, collecting ever more dogs until they're running in a pack to add maximum chaos to what is already an epic chase scene. H.I., Cage's character, has stolen a box of Huggies and is dodging bullets as he runs around with a stocking pulled over his face. My favorite touch now that I'm a parent: Watching him skip over Luvs and other "wrong" brands until he finds the box of diapers he and his wife prefer, all while running at top speed. Honestly, I feel that.
There's also a fight between H.I. and an ex-con played by the always-superb John Goodman that ends in a trashed house with giant holes in the wall, Bugs-Bunny style. The scene is complete with nose-pulling and a crash into the toilet, kid favorites.
There is so much footage of cute babies.
The '80s were kind of obsessed with long shots of cute babies, from Three Men and a Baby to Parenthood, and Raising Arizona is no exception. H.I. sneaks into a nursery belonging to a rich couple that welcomed quintuplets. There are many scenes of him taking the babies out of their crib only to have them crawl into the closet, under the crib, around the room, and out the door while H.I. chases them. Apparently, 15 babies were used to play quintuplets in the movie, and lore has it that one was fired when he learned to walk.
The writing and acting are top-notch.
A big part of Coen-brothers humor is having downtrodden, low-brow characters speak like polite, educated elites. The film memorably opens with H.I. setting up the story: "Now, y'all who're without sin can cast the first stone..." When Ed asks two fugitives if they busted out of jail, one responds, "No, ma'am. We released ourselves on our own recognizance," and the other adds, "We felt that the institution no longer had anything to offer us."
Cage, Hunter, and Goodman are at their down-home erudite best, but there are also some great scenes with Frances McDormand lecturing Ed about immunizations and the importance of sending their baby to the University of Arizona in, oh, 17 years. Kids appreciate her silliness, but her lines really ring true with all of us parents who have been given "advice."
Raising Arizona is all about parenting.
"We thought it unfair that some should have so many while others should have so few," H.I. says as we watch him tie a ladder to the top of his car in preparation for stealing one of the quintuplets at his wife's request. The baby gets handed off from one set of unsavory people to the next, but a running gag is that they each stop to take Dr. Spock's Baby & Childcare book along with the baby. It's a little like The Hangover, with the bad guys trying to do right by the kid.
Lastly, three trigger warnings. (This was the '80s, after all.)
Infertility: Holly Hunter's character, Ed, struggles with infertility, which is not treated as a joke but could feel like a knife to any viewer going through it. Her husband, H.I. (Nicolas Cage), explains, "Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase." IVF barely existed in 1987, so in this tale, they're pretty much just out of luck.
Adoption: Ed and H.I. do try for adoption. But H.I. is a repeat-offender small-time criminal. So even though Ed is a cop (they fall in love, hilariously, through the many times Ed has to book H.I. into jail), the adoption agency won't take them. Funny, but maybe not funny to anyone currently trying to adopt.
Racism: H.I. has a terrible boss named Glen, played by Sam McMurray. Glen has a passel of feral children who take bats to H.I.'s car for fun and write "fart" across a wall in the house. (Cue laughter from your kids.) But the scene is muted by Glen explaining that he and his wife are looking to adopt a "healthy white baby" and then complaining about the race of the babies available. The lines are there to make you hate Glen — even before H.I. breaks his nose for proposing a wife swap — but that excuse barely holds up to 2023 scrutiny.
If you love the Coen brothers, it's a classic.
My kids laughed more at Raising Arizona than at O, Brother Where Art Thou? — though not as much as they did at The Big Lebowski. The thing is, during our Coen-brothers fest, my husband and I laughed the most at Raising Arizona. Having had kids, we get all the jokes now.
Common Sense Media recommends the movie for ages 14 and up, but given some of what's out these days, I feel like kids 10 and up could handle Raising Arizona. Common Sense Media summarizes it like this: "Hysterically twisted tale has profanity, violence." Which is true, but they leave out the cute baby faces and scenes of the parents trying not to curse once they have a little one in their house.