This was the Coen Brothers' second movie, and it's a masterpiece. Everything about this movie-- the cast, the script, the cinematography-- and the message-- are flawless.
The main character, H.I. McDunnough, or "Hi" is a career criminal who specializes in sticking up convenience stores. As a criminal, he is a failure. He is, as a parole board member admonishes him, a recidivist-- a repeat offender. He is also the nicest, most gentle character in the movie-- one of the reasons for the failure of his criminal career is his refusal to carry a loaded weapon-- he didn't want to hurt anybody, he points out.
Due to his recidivism, he meets Ed-- "short for Edwina," who takes his mug shot every time he is arrested. He falls in love with her, and when he discovers that she's been dumped by her fiance for a student cosmetologist, he eventually proposes to her.
He finishes his prison term, marries Ed and they begin their lives together in their "starter home" (i.e. mobile home) in the desert, where they try to have a baby. They find, to their dismay, that Edwina cannot concieve-- or, as Hi puts it:
"The doctor told us that her womb was a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase."
The great script and the attention to local dialect (e.g. "I'll be back directly") has come to be a Coen Brothers trademark (this was probably noticed the most in Fargo). If you follow the credits, you'll see that there was a dialect coach on the set. And a "baby wrangler."
The couple try adopting, but Hi's long criminal record makes this impossible. Then a solution presents itself-- the birth of quintuplets to Nathan Arizona and his wife. Hi and Ed decide to kidnap one of the babies and raise it as their own. This sets in motion the plot of the movie.
One of the things I love about this movie are the subtle running jokes that you may not catch until you view it a second (or third or fourth) time:
- When the parole board meets, there is always a portrait of Senator Barry Goldwater on the wall
- The female parole board never speaks
- The dorky prison counselor Dr. Schwartz' visual aids, which include his version of Shel Silverstein's "The Missing Piece."
- That whoever has Nathan Jr. (this movie's MacGuffin) makes sure to have the "manual"-- a copy of Dr. Spock's book on childrearing
The late Trey Wilson, who died just two years after making this movie (he was also the coach in "Bull Durham") frequently steals the show as Nathan Arizona (formerly Nathan Hufhimes, as we find out), the father of Nathan, Jr., the kidnapped infant.
When asked if his son was wearing anything when he was kidnapped, Arizona angrily tells him "Nobody sleeps naked in this house!." When asked what his son's pajamas looked like, he blusters "I don't know-- they had Yodas and shit on 'em!"
"Why in the hell are you lookin' for my son in the one house in all of Arizona we know he ain't in?!!!
There are so many other priceless lines by other characters:
Ed:"You're a bad influence in this home!"
Evelle Snoats:"Ma'am, we certianly didn't mean to influence anybody. And if we did, we apologize."
Evelle Snoats: "Do these balloons blow up into funny shapes?"
Store Clerk: "Nope, not unless round is funny."
Dr. Schwartz: "Most men your age have jobs and families."
Gale Snoats: "Well, sometimes your career's gotta come before family."
This movie is rich in great character actors: M. Emmet Walsh, William Forsythe, Trey Wilson, Randall "Tex" Cobb, and of course John Goodman, who's become a staple in Coen Brothers movies (Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Big Lebowski). It's also got a great soundtrack, dominated by a bluegrass version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
The overarching theme of this movie is a lovely little message about raising children. To quote that noted child-rearing expert, Teri Garr in "Mr. Mom," "I happen to think that raising children to become healthy, functional adults is an important job." This movie, besides being a very, very funny comedy, is also an examination of families and parenting, arguing that the structure and make-up of a family is not as important as the competency and dedication of the parenting going on. Hi and Ed, despite society's prejudices, would have made wonderful parents. They get it: it's all about the kids. And as the movie ends, with them contemplating splitting, but taking Nathan Arizona's advice to sleep one night on the decision, Hi, in a dream sequence sees a future in which Nathan Jr., now back with his parents, grows up happy and healthy-- as do the children and grandchildren of an elderly couple-- Hi and Ed. And, as Hi says, none of the children or grandchildren are screwed up, having been raised in a mythical world, a future that isn't so clear yet, in which "all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved." This line, the point of the movie, never fails to choke me up.