** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Joel Coen

Written by Joel and Ethan Coen

With Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Trey Wilson, Randall “Tex” Cobb, and Sam McMurray.

Formal mastery without feeling makes people uneasy. Perhaps Joel and Ethan Coen sensed this in the wake of (and despite) the resounding critical and popular success of their first feature, Blood Simple, and decided to include a little compassion and optimism next time out. Regrettably, in their new film Raising Arizona, humanism is just so much baggage. It’s handled the way the film’s two escaped cons handle the infant they have kidnapped: Off to pull a bank heist, they leave the kid on the roof of the car when they take off down the highway. Discovering the mistake, they U-turn and tear howling back, screeching to a halt inches from the baby, who sits vaguely annoyed on the center line. Moments later the robbers burst into the bank, toting mean-looking 12-gauges and a bemused eight-month-old in a car seat. Splendidly self-parodic, this is one of the Coens’ funniest moments in the movie.

But the baby, in the end, not only foils the outlaws’ plans, he undoes the Coens’ chief virtue, their ebullient, blackly nihilistic sense of the absurd. Blood Simple unnerved viewers even as it delighted them because, it demonstrated that a vastly entertaining film could spring not from any reverence for the human soul, but from a callow joy in cinematic artifice, from exuberance in technical expertise, and from the same morbid fascination and good-natured sadism that compels little boys to buy ant farms and reptiles. Raised on movies and TV, the Coens are masters of the form of film genres, if not their spirit; in Blood Simple they indulged their gift by creating a wild and elegant Rube Goldberg movie that was a virtual lexicon of film styles, techniques, and allusions. Basically, Blood Simple melded the two disparate genres of film noir and silent comedy, borrowing plot, characters, and textures from the former and a worldview from the latter. Buster Keaton, whose films are set in a world based on a sublime conspiracy of the inanimate against the human, is the closest parallel. But there’s a difference: pathetic, impassive, and comically noble, the human nonetheless prevails in Keaton’s films; for the Coens the world is a machine of devious plot twists and sudden unpleasant disclosures, and the human characters, ignorant, selfish, and corrupt, haven’t got a chance. When it comes down to the conflict between man and the indifferent universe, the Coens will side with the universe every time. That’s the source of the dark, Olympian hilarity of Blood Simple, and it’s one of the Coens’ greatest strengths.

The new picture is again a chimerical fusion of alien film forms. The dominant genre is changed from the fatalistic film noir to the sunny screwball comedy, a form rooted in the happy reconciliation of individualism and conformity. The Coens’ formulation of this process is clever, if blatant; their main problem is taking the theme seriously long enough to make it funny.

Their hero, H.I. (“Hi”) McDonough (Nicolas Cage), for example, has neither the humanity of a Jimmy Stewart nor the urbanity of a Cary Grant. He’s a crude and smug caricature, a gangly puppet with jerky arms and legs and a triangular, toplike head emphasized by unlikely tufts of hair, a greasy swipe of a mustache, and Cage’s overbitten chinlessness. Since the Coens are incapable of pure cliche, Hi is redeemed somewhat by a weird polyglot diction composed of prison slang, People magazine, folk ballads, and Shakespeare. His crackbrained dialogues, philosophical observations, and running commentary are reminiscent of E. Emmet Walsh’s oddities in Blood Simple.

In the film’s blackout-style opening, Hi is shown to be a descendent of pioneers who fulfills his yen for anarchy, independence, and wide-open spaces by repeatedly botching convenience-store holdups and going to jail. In the course of his many incarcerations he develops a passion for Ed (Holly Hunter), the officer who takes his mug shots. She’s a stiff, petal-mouthed woman in blue, who resembles a more robust version of the fretful daughter in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Hi’s passion is requited, and the two wed in a union of wild individualism and nurturing order, that promises a paradise in the midst of John Ford’s Arizona wilderness.

But the unlikely match does not prove fruitful and the desert remains sterile. “Her insides,” intones Hi in one of his many poetic flights, “were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” Notoriously fecund, on the other hand, are Nathan Arizona — the unpainted-furniture tycoon — and his wife, Polly. Their “Arizona Quintuplets” are front-page news, and Ed and Hi decide to fill their need by stealing one from the Arizonas’ abundance. The deed is done, and the flash of Hi’s camera as he photographs the illicitly contrived family is followed by a bolt of lightning. The flash reveals an orifice opening in the mud outside the state penitentiary, which gives birth to the Faulknerian-monikered brothers Gale and Evelle Snopes (John Goodman and William Forsythe), Hi’s old prison pals.

Hi and Ed’s well-intended crime thus releases their dark side — not sufficiently, though, for the filmmakers. Inspired perhaps by the Arizonas, the Coens spawn yet another dark double for Hi, the “lone biker of the Apocalypse,” aka Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb), a green-toothed and hairy road warrior equipped with furry leather duds, hand grenades, and a Harley Davidson, who may or may not be Hi’s lost brother. Rounding out the crew of alter egos is Glen (Sam McMurray), Hi’s smarmy boss, a paterfamilias of a host of hideous adopted children whose food throwing, wall defacing, and overall destructive depravity finally convinces Hi to give up family life and join the Snopeses in their bank job.

The heist doesn’t quite come off as planned, and the movie degenerates into slapstick as the baby, Nathan Jr., becomes a soccer ball kicked from Hi to Glen to the Snopeses and then to Smalls. The comedy is cartoonish in its broadness and frenzy, and the cartoon is, in fact, the film form with which the Coens couple their screwball comedy. They supplement Sturges with Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and Woody Woodpecker, and for a while it seems like this audacious ploy might work. They work hard to mimic the surreal skewing of physical laws that is the virtue of their animated models. A cactus leaps into the frame to smack a running man in the face, a doberman leaps for a throat, his teeth caught inches short of a jugular by a suddenly revealed restraining chain. A ubiquitous wide-angle lens makes feet loom disproportionately large over lounge chairs, lavender hair curlers spring from heads like pinwheels, and baby bottoms swell like the sails of galleons. The track shot, which was a mild fetish in Blood Simple, is here an obsession as the Coens seek to recreate the surreal freedom of the animator’s sketch pad. The Stedicam tracks a motorcycle over a car, up a ladder, through a window, and into a screaming woman’s mouth; it pursues a pack of dogs, a crawling toddler and a fleeing felon with pantyhose on his head. In one memorable scene, Hi’s kidnapping of Nathan Jr. is interrupted by the release of all the quints from their crib. They spread over the nursery floor like an overturned bucket of live bait, and the camera follows them accompanied by abrupt closeups, point-of-view shots, and the music of Jaws on the sound track. It is a bizarre moment, unsettling and hilarious, but somehow gratuitous. The Coens are merely showing off, but their virtuosity is not enough.

The initial inspiration sags into the worst aspects of Saturday-morning TV — its repetitiousness, banality, and bald sadism. Instead of invention, Raising Arizona settles for gags that were stale when the Three Stooges used them. Long before the end, the Coens abandon comedy altogether for a Mad Max romp of car chases and explosions and an endless, Capraesque homily that leaves the stunned viewer waiting, in vain, for a punch line.

The Coens have not achieved the maturity needed to appreciate the vision of a Capra or Sturges, and their gifts are too rich and deep for the likes of Heckle and Jeckle. The unlikely formal marriage of Raising Arizona is barren, and the theme the Coens adopt to fill the gap is nominal at best. One of the motifs recurrent in this picture is suggestive of their failure: a copy of Doctor Spock’s Baby and Child Care, which passes from hand to hand along with the charmingly photographed child. Dog-eared, singed, broken spined, it survives every catastrophe. But it is never read. Whether raising babies for real or exploiting them in movies, it usually helps to take a look at the instructions. When the Coens grow up enough to regard people as mysteries to be probed and not props with which to provide cheap laughs and thrills, the brilliant promise of their talents might be fulfilled.