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'Raising Arizona' (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 20, 1987

They don't own a Volvo, but Hi and Ed (short for Edwina) McDonnough want a baby on board. Combining two major trends of the '80s -- having babies and taking hostages -- "Raising Arizona" follows this childless couple's deliriously funny drive to join the baby boomlet.

"Every day we keep a child out of the world is a day he'll miss," says Ed just before she flunks her fertility test. Then all the adoption agencies go and turn them down because Hi, though reformed, is an ex-con. So they kidnap a quintuplet -- who's going to miss one anyway?

The Coen brothers -- director Joel and producer Ethan -- deliver this bouncing baby picture with nods to Monty Python, comic Sam Kennison, the Gerber Baby and the Road Warrior. It is a wacky, happy, daring, darkly comic tale of parenting outside the law. It celebrates the middle-of-the-road dreams of decidedly off-center folks. It's a bundle of joy.

The cowriting Coens are like a couple of big kids who got cameras for Christmas; they're full of raw comic energy, as silly as they are sophisticated. But crucial to their success here is their affection for their dull-witted protagonists played with endearing deadpan by Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. He's Hi, a former convenience-store robber with a high recidivism rate, and she's Ed, his former police booking officer and now loving wife, who longs to change Huggies and push an Aprica full of tomorrow.

"I tried to stand up and fly straight, but with that darned Reagan in the White House . . ." recalls Hi, who vows to reform when he one day finds the tight-lipped Officer Ed in tears, deserted by her fiance.

Hi gets a job punching holes and the newlyweds move into a "suburban starter home," a tiny trailer in the Arizona scrub, where they start taking their temperatures and whatever else is necessary for the making of babies. "These were the happy days," says Hi, narrating as the camera pulls back for a panorama of the McDonnoughs relaxed on drugstore lawn furniture outside their modest home on the arid plains.

Even the photography is funny, and telling, as directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who earned kudos for his amusing cinematography on the Coens' first movie "Blood Simple." Through it, the Coens keep highlighting the contrast between what Hi perceives and the realities of his impoverished life.

Cage, who narrates much of the story, hooks us the minute we lay eyes on him. He's got that blank look that Wile E. Coyote gets after he's been hit between the eyes with an anvil. Nevertheless he is a deep thinker, without the IQ to support his habit. The cartoon look carries over to his hairdo -- like Woody Woodpecker's topknot without benefit of styling gel.

Cage, who proved himself a fine dramatic actor as the bandaged Vietnam veteran of "Birdy," brings that same sort of Innocence Lost to this absurd part. Badly cast as the husband in "Peggy Sue Got Married," he makes up for that lapse as a lovable loser who can say things like "I cannot tarry" and get away with it.

Hunter, who the Coens spotted in Broadway's "Crimes of the Heart," had the part of Edwina from the time they put it on paper. She recalls a repressed Cindy ("Laverne & Shirley") Williams, as she compulsively pursues motherhood. She looks about to burst with the need to nourish. But coming from a long line of police officers, she keeps her passion under control. She's tight-lipped, pinched as an American gothic farmwoman's bun.

"I want you to go up there and get me a toddler," she orders Hi in her perfunctory twang. And he climbs into the home of Nathan and Florence Arizona, an unfinished- furniture magnate and his fertility-drugged wife, who have borne at long last the cutest-wootest quintuplets. Given a choice between Harry, Barry, Larry, Garry, or Nathan Jr., of course Hi swipes Junior.

It's a merry abduction scene, with Hi scrambling after tots as they start spilling out of their cribs like assembly-line cakes on "I Love Lucy."

The joys of parenting are imperiled, however, with the arrival of Hi's old cellmates Evelle and Gale Snopes (played by William Forsythe and the baby-faced John Goodman), who sit drooling their breakfast cereal down their chins while warning Edwina of the consequences of not breast-feeding. "That's why we ended up in prison," says dopey Evelle. Goodman and Forsythe make a merry pair of incorrigibles from their muddy jailbreak (and symbolic rebirth) to their final holdup (an easy job they heard about from one of Nixon's imprisoned plumbers). In one scene, they scream continually, like colicky, grown-up variations on the adorable Nathan Jr. himself (played by the adorable T.J. Kuhn).

Eventually comes the Lone Motorcyclist of the Apocalypse, a scuzzy grenade-toting bounty hunter in search of the baby. Blowing up bunnies and butterflies on route, Tex Cobb is the uneasy rider who probably embodies every parent's fear of the nuclear world they bring their child into. And certainly he is Hi's nightmare incarnate.

The Coens are coming from the New Left-Field with this zany answer to the alarmist milk-carton-kids campaign, a send-up of endearing dolts, desperation and disposable diapers. They got by with murder in "Blood Simple" and now they get by with baby rustling in the best kidnapping comedy since last summer's "Ruthless People." Give these boys a cigar, and congratulations to the producers, Washington's Ted and Jim Pedas of Circle Films.

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