Written, produced and directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Music by Carter Burwell. Photographed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Edited by Michael R. Miller. Production designed by Jane Musky. Starring Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurry, Frances McDormand, Randall “Tex” Cobb.
The fundamental principle that a comedy should live by is that its characters must want something. Not just as a by-the-way, but hungrily, passionately. They need to need. It may not be something that we, as viewers, would want. Sometimes that even helps, because comedic stakes and tension are often enhanced by the disparity between what a specific character specifically wants above all reason, and what we, the audience, accept as reasonable human behavior. A man trying to solve the murder of a person is not, I submit, funny. But a man trying to solve the murder of his beloved houseplant, so much so that he dusts the scene for fingerprints and interrogates his roommates? Now that’s funny. Or at least, it could be, with the right execution. So it goes.
Raising Arizona is an early film by the Coen Brothers, who are masters of tone in genres as varied as comedies (The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?) to blood-chilling thrillers (Fargo, No Country For Old Men). Normally they hit a home run when concocting their oddball situations and characters, but Raising Arizona is too much of a near-miss to be truly effective. It has the perfect ingredients for a screwball comedy (a barren couple kidnaps a baby and stirs up a hornet’s nest of crime in their inner circle), but it doesn’t achieve the comic momentum of some of their more successful works, and I think because we never really believe anything is at stake. The film keeps telling us there is, but the characters who should care the most about such things are drawn with such heavy exaggeration that they feel like grotesqueries, not people. It’s a subtle miscalculation that the Coens make here, but an important one. Everything is just a bit too wacky.
When the Coens approach a story, I wouldn’t be surprised if their first step is to start with character, and then find the humanity underneath. In most every Coen Brothers movie, we are introduced to a handful of sharply drawn, peculiar individuals, who own stylized mannerisms and dialogue piled so sky-high we’d be mistaken for confusing the approach with mockery. What redeems almost every go-for-broke attempt is the way the Coens so effortless draw sympathy for these very very strange people. But in Raising Arizona, I don’t think they find the best inroads to this approach. They create a cast of characters who have puckish way about them, an urbane wit in their dialogue and thoughts that seems to betray our acceptance that they would get involved in what is, essentially, a stupid plot. Mind you, the stupidity by itself could be funny, but not here, where the characters seem alternately too smart to act the way they do and too dumb to believe the words they’re saying. It’s very arch.
What happens is that we lose all interest in the plot, because we can’t believe a word of it. We spend a lot of time in the head of Herbert “Hi” McDonough (Nicolas Cage) in Raising Arizona, and he seems a bit too “with it” to not notice that his hair is in a permanent, frightful state of disarray for the entire length of the film. His paramour, Ed (Holly Hunter) seems too composed when we first see her as a police officer who falls in love Hi to buy her eventual near-insane need to raise a baby, and there’s little sympathy for her outrageous mood swings; the overall statement seems to be “women are crazy for babies!” Ha ha ha. Hi’s two prison buddies who show up, Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman, William Forsythe) are obviously trouble from minute one, and everyone is perceptive enough to notice this, but allow it anyway. The rich father of the missing child, Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) seems concerned about what’s happening, but not nearly as concerned as he should be. The bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) looks like he wandered off the pages of a comic strip, and he’s all caricature. Even the random FBI agents who appear to help the case feel more like they’re rehearsing a vaudeville routine than actually involved in what is occuring.
I’m not saying that Raising Arizona isn’t funny. Quite the opposite. It has genuine moments of brilliant comic inspiration. My favorites are the quick lines of dialogue (example: when the millionaire is asked by the press if he thinks his baby was abducted by aliens, he responds: “Don’t print that, son. If his mama reads it, she’ll lose all hope.”) And there’s an extended chase sequence for Hi that builds and builds with such deliberate and wicked construction that by the end, we’re smiling at the sheer delight of it all. And Cage, though sometimes an unwelcome presence, has a delicious repertoire of glances and asides here. But all these moments are freestanding, without enough connection to each other or the plot. At times, Raising Arizona feels like a cartoonish sketch comedy with the thinnest of linking material.
Consider the best movies in the Coen cannon. They always have that little extra bit of momentum that comes from true understanding of who these characters are, what they want, and how their mannerisms extend naturally from them. Marge Gunderson in Fargo, for example, is a distinctive and quirky individual, but the movie allows her humanity. And her smarts. We laugh at her, sometimes, not with cruelty, but recognition for how, given the parameters of who Marge is, and how she has been presented, we firmly believe that in the situation that now shows itself, she would act that way. That’s who she is. The Coens in their best work have shown again and again that they are skilled at the practice of going off book from standard Hollywood templates, creating delightfully different characterizations that make sense.
Even their non-comic characters show this aptitude. Consider Anton Chigurh, from their brilliant 2007 film No Country For Old Men. Again, the Coens start with caricature here, since he is, in so many words, a force of unstoppable evil, a mob hitman/serial killer who is very very good at both jobs. But the Coens aren’t satisfied with that as the sole definition for him. They allow his humanity, not through demonstrations of compassion (no, certainly not), but by illustrating the ruthlessness and intelligence with which he goes about his work, his ability to improvise, and the fatalistic worldview he shares with an unlucky associate (Woody Harrelson). We are still able to fear him, but the Coens are not afraid to fill in some blanks for who he is without draining his mystique. It all makes sense.
I just don’t think the characters in Raising Arizona make enough sense. They are too shrill and precious to be believable, just by a hair, and set themselves up too easily for comic situations. If there’s one thing that kills humor on film, it is when people behave as if they know they are in a comedy, and Raising Arizona errs one micron on the wrong side of the line. Efforts are made to introduce some heart into the proceedings, but they feel vaguely phony. The Coens by now have a dependable formula for how to tell a compelling story while preserving their valuable irony, but in this early work, I feel they hadn’t quite worked out the math just yet.
The performances are as good as they can be, under the circumstances. Not just by Cage but also Hunter, who embraces the challenges of her character and, if she doesn’t succeed, she at least tries very very hard. Goodman, as one of the affable cons, provides a link with comparing this movie to others in the Coen cannon: in The Big Lebowski, his character is better defined in and more amenable to the wonky dialogue that the Coens provide for him. It makes sense, whereas his character here seems artificially ironic.
I don’t mean to come too hard on Raising Arizona, because even though I disagreed with some of it, there’s an infectiousness to every Coen production. I love the spirit of its enterprise, and I love how every Coen Brothers movie fills the viewer with the joy that must have come from its making. They are smart people who make wonderfully odd (and sometimes darkly poignant) movies, and their every effort is a treasure, even the failures, because they are fascinating failures.
Raising Arizona is not a failure. Nor is it really a success. It occupies some crazy level in-between, where indivudal moments and sequences work their damndest, but are sabotaged by a less-than-rigid adherence to plot and character. There’s a misconception in a lot of Hollywood circles that comedies require less work than dramas. Not true, because to make a successful comedy one must apply the same discipline to a story, and then make it funny. That’s hard, and as long as a comedy tries, I’m willing to do my best to meet them halfway. Raising Arizona is sometimes a very funny movie, and one that points to upcoming success from its creators. It’s not a great film, but it is clearly the work of people who have greatness in them, and will soon make something great. Sometimes you can just tell these things.
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