Raising Arizona Is The Ultimate Screwball Comedy

ytsfreeAugust 26, 2022

As is the case with most Coen Brothers films, Raising Arizona centers around a hackneyed plan that looks good on paper to all involved but ultimately doesn’t go as anticipated, resulting in a calamitous series of events that quickly spiral out of control. In this case, a young childless couple, Hi and Ed (played by Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter), decide to kidnap a baby in order to fulfill their version of the American dream. Hi, you see, is a criminal known for robbing convenience stores (albeit with unloaded weapons) while Ed is a by-the-book police officer with no time for nonsense. The unlikely pair meet in prison, bond and decide to start a family together.

Trouble is, Ed can’t have children and Hi’s criminal record makes adoption impossible. As luck would have it, furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife have just given birth to quintuplets, leading Hi and Ed to kidnap one of the tykes with the rational: “We thought it was unfair that some should have so many while others had so few.”

And so begins this wacky adventure that owes as much to Tex Avery as it does Sam Raimi. Bristling with memorable characters, a sprawling cast — John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, Frances McDormand and Randall “Tex” Copp — wild action and a toe-tapping score from Carter Burwell, Raising Arizona is indeed a comedy classic.

So, why doesn’t anyone beyond critics seem to appreciate it?

Let me step back. On New Years Eve, 2000, I was celebrating the night with five of my friends. We were following the teenage mantra of acting like idiots throughout the evening but had eventually worn ourselves out. Attention turned to finding a movie we could watch to pass the time until midnight and I suggested Raising Arizona. At that point, the Coen Brothers were fairly well known, having produced Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? to much fame and success. My brother and I grew up watching their work and Raising Arizona was one of those films that left us rolling on the floor in stitches. So, I thought it would be a good choice for a group of goofy teens in search of laughs.

Boy, was I wrong.

As the Coen’s wacky universe exploded off the screen, I was stunned to see mostly frowns splattered across their dumbstruck faces. Even during the amazing “We ate sand” bit:

Granted, the opening frames of Raising Arizona are really weird and crammed with enough running gags (“Don’t forget his phone call, ED!”), slapstick comedy and mayhem to fill an entire film. Even the sensible voices of the law sound absurd:

Still, you’d expect to hear a few laughs after brilliant moments like this:

Or this:

Yet, nothing. Not a peep. The group — composed of three guys and three gals — simply wasn’t buying what the Coens were selling, which made for a rather awkward viewing party. It got so bad that I suggested finding something else to watch, but only after the film’s most memorable scene — the big chase. I remember saying out loud, “If this doesn’t make you laugh then nothing will.”

That clip cuts off right before the man in the truck observes, “Son, you got a panty on your head,” which floors me every time. If that weren’t enough, the truck driver proceeds to speed through the neighborhood before abruptly hitting the brakes, causing Hi to fly out through the front windshield. It’s genuinely hilarious stuff.

Still nothing from my pals.

At that point, I decided to scrap the viewing and allowed them to chose the next feature. I think we decided on The Mask of Zorro, which was a safe option that held their attention despite running over two hours.

Still, I felt kind of dumb. And yet, after all these years, I don’t get it. Raising Arizona is really good. I’ve watched it countless times and can practically quote it verbatim. There are so many clever bits of comedy sprinkled throughout, such as when Evelle (Forsythe) robs a convenience store and runs into a rather pragmatic employee:

Or this random moment with Glen (McMurray) …

… that sets up this gag with bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Cobb) later:

Speaking of Smalls, there’s a terrific scene in which he sits down with Nathan to discuss terms that feels ripped straight out of No Country for Old Men. Smalls himself serves as a precursor to formidable Coen villains such as Anton Chigurh, Gaear Grimsrud and Tom Chaney, what with his quiet demeanor and propensity for cruel acts of violence:

Those who appreciate Raising Arizona’s outlandish style, cartoon violence and eccentric characters will laugh until it hurts. Others need not apply.

That’s Joel and Ethan Coen in a nutshell. From Blood Simple to the recent (and terrific) The Tragedy of Macbeth, the Coens make astonishing motion pictures that (save for, perhaps, True Grit) aren’t specifically geared towards any particular audience. You either love their style, or you don’t. Simple as that.

I recall watching No Country for Old Men with a packed audience. There were scattered laughs throughout and the occasional gasps. When the film ended, I vividly recall hearing an older fellow blurt out, “This is why we don’t listen to critics.” I always thought that was funny.

In the case of Raising Arizona, reactions have varied. After a viewing, my mom remarked, “That’s it?” while my dad thought it was funny but a little too weird for his taste. Even my daughter, who shares my bizarre sense of humor, couldn’t really get into it and remained curiously silent during the funnier moments such as the bank heist:

And the brilliant trailer fight:

Even today, I continue to suggest Raising Arizona to friends and coworkers. And while a few have come back with positive praise, most usually remark on the film’s bizarre, quirky style; and the ethereal ending that seems to come out of nowhere. And I’m always shocked by the negative reaction.

I suppose that’s why Raising Arizona is regarded more as a cult classic than a mainstream success. I liken it to comedies such as Nacho Libre, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Adaptation — all unique films in their own respective way that often leave audiences scratching their heads. You either get them, or you don’t.

In the case of Raising Arizona, I’ll never tire of its zany energy, goofy humor or oddball “high hick” diction. For me, it’s a classic. One day, I’m sure I’ll bump into someone who appreciates its quirky nature as much as I do — and at the moment, I would have made a best friend for life.

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