When you walk into a Coen Brothers movie, you know exactly what you are getting. Their films have an unique, comic voice and a surprising heartfelt element placed in juxtaposition to crime and violence. It's unfair to say that all of their movies can be boiled down to such a simple description, but you'll find these basic things to be true of the vast majority of their films. Raising Arizona is a perfect example of the Coen Brother's film-making, but it's a rough, unrefined draft of what it would later become.
Raising Arizona is the Coen's second film and, while not a major commercial or critical success, it has developed a respectable following as a cult film. It's the story of H.I. McDunnough, Nicholas Cage, a man convicted of robbing convenience stores on a regular basis, and his wife Ed, Holly Hunter, a police officer whom he meets because of his nighttime proclivities. They live a happy life, but when the couple finds out they can't have children of their own, they do what any reasonable couple would; Steal a baby from a rich family. Things devolve in typical Coen brothers fashion from there.
It's easy to see the spots where the movie shines. H.I. is a sort of hillbilly Shakespeare; voiced and portrayed perfectly by Nicholas Cage. His narrated passages, while a little excessive, are the scripts true bright moments. This quirky voice gives them film a tone that isn't like anything else your likely to see. The Coen's have always had a knack for creating interesting characters and putting those characters in totally unique and unexpected situations. Raising Arizona is no different in this respect, but the rest of the movie doesn't hold up.
It's Newton's Third Law observed in film-making. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every moment of pure comedic wit and voice, there is John Goodman's yelling or the film-making equivalent of it. This inconsistency dooms the movie to it's cult status. Every moment of pure, unadulterated joy that the script produces, there is an equal and opposite movement towards stupidity. The Coen brothers have always walked a fine line between stupidity and genius. In some films, The Big Labowski comes to mind, it works perfectly, but sometimes it just fails. There are several instances in Raising Arizona where it just walks right over the thin line between funny and stupid and never looks back. The plot of the film also falls into a rather predictable routine. The Coen brothers made a career out of surprising audiences with their twisting, labyrinth-like plots, but Raising Arizona fails to really surprise anyone. It proceeds in a rather predictable fashion, not without laughs, but without real surprise for most of it's run-time.
It is clear that Raising Arizona was a stepping stone for the Coen Brothers. It has their trademark voice and style, but it lacks the narrative skill that their later movies would demonstrate It's inconsistant, but the traits that would send them on to major critical and commercial success are still present. Despite it's weak points, it is an enjoyable and unique journey through the American southwest.