Convenience store robber Herbert I. "Hi" McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and police officer Edwina "Ed" (Holly Hunter) meet after she takes the mugshots of the recidivist. With continued visits, Hi learns that Ed's fiancé has left her. Hi proposes to her after his latest release from prison, and the two get married. They move into a desert mobile home, and Hi gets a job in a machine shop. They want to have children but Ed is infertile, and they cannot adopt because of Hi's criminal record, despite the fact that Ed is a police officer. Devastated, Ed resigns her job. The couple learns of the "Arizona Quints," sons of locally famous furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson); Hi and Ed kidnap one of the five babies, whom they believe to be Nathan Junior.
Hi and Ed return home and are soon visited by Hi's cellmates, Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe), who have just escaped from prison. Under the brothers' influence, Hi is tempted to return to his felonious ways. Their problems get worse when Hi's supervisor, Glen (Sam McMurray), proposes wife swapping and Hi assaults him. That night, Hi decides to steal a package of diapers for the baby, but gets carried away and starts to rob the convenience store. Ed sees this and, furious, drives off without him. Hi is then forced to flee on foot from the convenience store, chased by two police officers and two armed cashiers, who attempt to shoot him down, as well as a pack of neighborhood dogs, but he manages to outrun and lose them. Ed eventually picks him up, leading to a tense ride home.
At the McDunnough residence the next day, Glen approaches Hi to fire him, and reveals that he has deduced Junior's identity because of the newspaper article he read about Junior missing, and blackmails Hi, threatening to turn him over to the police unless Glen and Dot get custody of Junior. Gale and Evelle overhear this conversation and turn on Hi, tying him to a chair and taking Junior for themselves. Gale and Evelle leave with plans to rob a "hayseed" bank with Junior in tow. When Ed comes home, she frees Hi and the two arm themselves and set out together to retrieve the child. En route, Ed suggests that they should end their marriage after recovering the boy. Meanwhile, Nathan Arizona Sr. is approached by the bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb) who offers to find the child for $50,000. Nathan Sr. declines the offer, believing that Smalls himself is his son's kidnapper. Smalls decides to recover the child anyway to sell on the black market. He begins tracking Gale and Evelle and learns of their bank robbery plans.
Gale and Evelle rob a bank but leave Junior there as they make their getaway. One of the bank's anti-theft dye canisters explodes in their loot sack, blocking the car's windows and incapacitating them. At the bank, Smalls arrives for Junior just ahead of Ed and Hi. Ed grabs the baby and flees; Hi is able to fend Smalls off for a while, but is eventually overwhelmed by Smalls' superior strength, armament and viciousness. As Smalls throws Hi to the ground and prepares to kill him, Hi holds up his hand to reveal that he has pulled the pin from one of the hand grenades on Smalls' vest. Smalls attempts to get rid of the grenade, but he cannot get it off in time and is blown to pieces when the grenade explodes and sets off all his weapons.
Hi and Ed sneak Junior back into the Arizona home and are confronted by Nathan Sr. After Nathan Sr. learns why they took his son, he understands the couple's predicament and decides not to turn them over to the police. He counsels them: when Hi and Ed say that they are splitting up, he advises them to sleep on it. Hi and Ed go to sleep in the same bed, and Hi has a dream about Gale and Evelle reforming after returning to prison, realizing they "weren't ready yet to come out into the world"; Glen gets his due from a Polish-American police officer whom he has no luck getting to listen to his "wild tales" about Hi and Ed after he "threw in one Polack joke too many"; and Nathan Jr. gets a football for Christmas from "a kindly couple who wish to remain unknown", later becoming a football star. The dream ends with an elderly couple (implied to be Hi and Ed) together enjoying a holiday visit from a large family of children and grandchildren.
In contrast to Blood Simple, the characters of Raising Arizona were written to be very sympathetic. The Coens wrote the part of Ed for Holly Hunter.
Several babies had to be fired on-set due to them taking their first steps rather than crawling. One mother put her baby's shoes on backwards to keep the baby crawling rather than walking. The character of Leonard Smalls was created when the Coen Brothers tried to envision an "evil character" not from their imagination, but one that the character Hi would have thought up. Randall "Tex" Cobb gave the Coens difficulty on set, with Joel noting that "he's less an actor than a force of nature ... I don't know if I'd rush headlong into employing him for a future film."
The Coen Brothers started working on Raising Arizona with the idea to make it as different as possible from their previous film, Blood Simple, by having it be far more optimistic and upbeat. The starting point of scriptwriting came from the idea of the character of Hi, who has the desire to live a regular life within the boundaries of the law. To create their characters' dialect, Joel and Ethan created a hybrid of local dialect and the assumed reading material of the characters, namely, magazines and the Bible. The script took three and a half months to write.
The film was influenced by the works of director Preston Sturges and writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, known for her southern literature. Joel and Ethan showed their completed script to Circle Films, which was their American distributor for Blood Simple. Circle Films agreed to finance the movie. The Coens came to the set with a complete script and storyboard. With a budget of just over five million dollars, Joel Coen noted that "to obtain maximum from that money, the movie has to be meticulously prepared."
Raising Arizona was shot in ten weeks. The relationship between actor Nicolas Cage and the Coens was respectful, but turbulent. When he arrived on-set, and at various other points during production, Cage offered suggestions to the Coen brothers, which they ignored. Cage said that "Joel and Ethan have a very strong vision and I've learned how difficult it is to accept another artist's vision. They have an autocratic nature."
Many crew members who had worked with Joel and Ethan on Blood Simple returned for Raising Arizona, including cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, co-producer Mark Silverman, production designer Jane Musky, associate producer and assistant director Deborah Reinisch, and film composer Carter Burwell.
The film was screened out of competition at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.
As of 2014, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 90% of 50 critics gave the film a positive review. The film opened to mixed reviews, however. Among the positive reviews, David Denby of New York wrote that the film was a "deranged fable of the New West" which turned "sarcasm into a rude yet affectionate mode of comedy." Richard Corliss of Time referred to the film as "exuberantly original." Rita Kempley of The Washington Post gave a positive review, stating that it was "the best kidnapping comedy since last summer's Ruthless People." On the film review television show Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, critic Gene Siskel said the film was as "good looking as it is funny" and that "despite some slow patches" he recommended the film, giving it a "thumbs up." Writing for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote that "Raising Arizona is no big deal, but it has a rambunctious charm."
Negative reviews focused on a "style over substance" view of the film. Variety wrote, "While [Raising Arizona] is filled with many splendid touches and plenty of yocks, it often doesn't hold together as a coherent story." Writing for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Like Blood Simple, it's full of technical expertise but has no life of its own ... The direction is without decisive style." Julie Salamon of the Wall Street Journal wrote that the Coen Brothers "have a lot of imagination and sense of fun—and, most of all, a terrific sense of how to manipulate imagery," but "by the end, the fun feels a little forced." Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune wrote that "the overlooked form peels away from the slight, frail content, and the film starts to look like an episode of Hee Haw directed by an amphetamine-crazed Orson Welles." Roger Ebert wrote a negative review, stating the film "stretches out every moment for more than it's worth, until even the moments of inspiration seem forced. Since the basic idea of the movie is a good one and there are talented people in the cast, what we have here is a film shot down by its own forced and mannered style."
Later writings about the film have been generally positive. Both the British film magazine Empire and film database Allmovie gave the film five stars, their highest ratings. Allmovie's Lucia Bozzola wrote, "Complete with carefully modulated over-the-top performances from the entire cast, Raising Arizona confirmed the Coens' place among the most distinctive filmmakers to emerge from the 1980s independent cinema," while Caroline Westbrook of Empire declared it a "hilarious, madcap comedy from the Coen brothers that demonstrates just why they are the kings of quirk." Bilge Ebiri considers Raising Arizona to be "the Coens’ masterpiece — their funniest movie, and quite possibly their most poignant as well." The Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland placed its bank robbery scene second on their list of "the 5 best bank robberies in film history," behind a bank robbery scene from the 1995 thriller Heat.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #31
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
H. I. McDunnough: "I'll be taking these Huggies and whatever cash you got." – Nominated
The score to Raising Arizona is written by Carter Burwell, the second of his collaborations with the Coen brothers. The sounds are a mix of organ, massed choir, banjo, whistling, and yodeling.
Themes are borrowed from the "Goofing Off Suite," originally recorded by Pete Seeger in 1955, which includes an excerpt from the Chorale movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and "Russian Folk Themes and Yodel." Credited musicians for the film include Ben Freed (banjo), Mieczyslaw Litwinski (Jew's harp and guitar), and John R. Crowder (yodeling). Holly Hunter sings a traditional murder ballad, "Down in the Willow Garden," as an incongruous "lullaby" during the film.
Selections from Burwell's score to Raising Arizona were released on an album in 1987, along with selections from the Coens' sole previous feature film, Blood Simple. The tracks from Raising Arizona constitute the first ten tracks on a 17-track CD that also features selections from the Blood Simple soundtrack.
- "Introduction – A Hole in the Ground" – (0:38)
- "Way Out There (Main Title)" – (1:55)
- "He Was Horrible" – (1:30)
- "Just Business" – (1:17)
- "The Letter" – (2:27)
- "Hail Lenny" – (2:18)
- "Raising Ukeleles" – (3:41)
- "Dream of the Future" – (2:31)
- "Shopping Arizona" – (2:46)
- "Return to the Nursery" – (1:35)
AllMusic gave the album a rating of (4.5 out of 5).