My Buddy is a Cage – Raising Arizona (1987)

Honestly, I have no idea why Nicolas Cage has become such an easy punchline these days. Well, that’s not exactly true.  It’s fair to say he’s elevated the art of scenery chewing to a completely different plane of existence. Lord knows I haven’t been the kindest to Mr. Cage’s more recent ouevre, so what better way to apologize than with a weekly feature on a blog three people read?  As a gesture of good faith, I’m kicking this thing off with a film I already know is high quality: Raising Arizona.  See? I’m only a dick on Mondays!
Repeat offender and expert in petty crimes, H.I. (call him “Hi”) McDunnough falls head over heels for Edwina (call her “Ed”), the police officer who habitually takes his prints and mugshot on each station visit.  The two of them settle down and Hi pledges to walk the straight and narrow path.  However when they realize they can’t have children, they make the next logical step: steal someone else’s.  What follows is a game of hot-potato amongst several interested parties who all try to lay claim to the newborn infant.
Yes, this is my flaccid olive branch to Mr. Cage.  He’s pretty darn good here.  Maybe it’s because Cage’s wild, uncouth spasms don’t seem strange when bursting out of the much younger Hi.  Maybe it’s Hi’s slipshod tussock of a hairdo.  It’s probably his mustache.
I’m referring to that caterpillar just north of his upper lip.  We are firmly entrenched in the late 80’s, ladies and gentlemen.  The uncertain Southern drawl and the incessant Aloha shirt all add to Cage’s portrait of Hi McDunnough, a portrait that’s not split in two so much as it just hasn’t had its finishing touhes yet.  There’s a subtle (Yes! Subtle!) resignation to Hi, but Cage also weaves in this complacent melancholy.  Raising Arizona’s fantastic first ten minutes features some quality Cage narration where he details a compacted metamorphosis of a very, very old child into a young man:

“I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn’t easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House.”  It’s goofy and a little morose at the same time, like a lot of the stories the Coen Brothers are interested in telling.  You can pick out elements from those opening sequences too: that up-to-no-good banjo? That’s O Brother Where Are Thou?  And narration and the jabs at Reagan?  Big Lebowski all the way.  Even bits of Fargo‘s black humor first take root here.  Tonally, Raising Arizonas probably closest to The Ladykillers, even if I’d just as soon forget about that one.

Maybe the connection the Coens draw between crime and love is a bit easy to make.  But it’s relevant.  Though he might not look it, Hi is a teenager.  That twinkle in his eyes belies as much of the mischief he finds himself in as the the head over heels love he’s stumbled into.   There’s an earnestness at work in Raising Arizona, a kind that forces its characters to make the difficult choice, to not shy away from the cold reality when one finds themselves penning a farewell letter to their dearly betrothed in the wee mornin’ hours.

Next time: We’ll jump forward to 2011’s Season of the Witch!  If I’m drunk enough!

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Want more Cage? You got it.

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