Double Take: Raising Arizona (1987)

There's what's right, and there's what's right, and never the twain shall meet. Double Take tries to meet in the middle of Raising Arizona, which was released this week 28 years ago.

With so much comical choreography, camera hijinks, and gut-busting violence, it’s easy to see Raising Arizona as a live-action cartoon.

Steve Pick: We turn our attention now to Raising Arizona, the second film from the oddball ouevre of Joel and Ethan Coen. This one came out in 1987, a time when I wasn’t paying close attention to the movie world. I do know that by the beginning of the ’90s, Raising Arizona was considered a comedy classic by a lot of the people I hung with, even though none of them had ever asked me to go see it with them. I caught bits here and there on TV over the years, but this was my first complete immersion into this tale of true love, the ways in which Huggies make changing diapers easier than changing one’s character, and the unbearable lightness of babies. It’s a black comedy, with almost as many homages to cartoons as would be seen in the partially animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit? only a year later. It continued the phenomenal rise to stardom of Nicholas Cage, back in the days when he was a lot skinnier, and a lot less imposing on screen. It introduced many people to Holly Hunter and gave John Goodman plenty of scenery to chew. Steve, what’s your history with this film and/or its directors and actors? How do you place it in the ranking of Coen Brothers movies?

Steve Leftridge: When I was in high school in the late ’80s, I worked in a video store renting VHS tapes. It was a small, independent store with slow customer traffic, so not only did I get to take movies home for free, I also had copious amounts of downtime in the store with a TV/VCR sitting next to me on the counter. One of the films I watched repeatedly was Raising Arizona, so I had the dialogue form this film memorized before I was able to know what the Coens would mean to the movies. A couple of years later, I took a film course in college, and Raising Arizona was one of the 15 or so films on the syllabus, which helped validate my suspicion that there was much more to this film and these writers/directors than just a goofy, madcap comedy.

As for your other question, I’m tempted to take a pass on ranking Raising Arizona within the Coens’ canon. The sentimentalist in me would probably place it at the top just because it’s the first one I saw, because I bonded with my friends over our love of the film when I was a teenager, and because it’s still probably the one I’ve seen the most. I don’t know, however, that I’d argue that it’s their best film. A glance at our Great 500 List reveals that we have seven Coen Brothers films to cover, and I can think of at least two others that deserve a spot. Raising Arizona came so early in their career that they certainly matured as filmmakers and writers during the two or three decades that followed. I would argue, however, that Raising Arizona remains their funniest film. What do you think? Did any of it get on your nerves?

Pick: Yes, actually, some of it did. Not having drunk the kool-aid at the time, I find parts of Raising Arizona to be insufferable, parts to be hilarious, and the whole to be good but not great. I honestly enjoy The Hudsucker Proxy much more. It’s funnier, more focused, and has a better tag line. You know, for kids.

At any rate, I wasn’t feeling the whole biker/bounty hunter thing. Every time that guy was on the screen, from the beginning dream sequence to the ending chase sequence, I kept waiting for it to pass so we could get some more drollery from Nicolas Cage or outsize laughs from John Goodman. I thought the kidnapping sequence dropped in from some other film. The juxtaposition of the parents downstairs (who seemed awfully relaxed for having five babies upstairs without even a baby monitor, but maybe that’s how parenthood was in the ’80s) with Cage’s antics with the runaway children was amusing, but every new last-minute rescue was more and more forced. Come to think of it, the whole scene was probably based on a Warner Brothers cartoon I can’t quite put my memory around, but it it wasn’t as funny as it wanted to be.

Worse yet, I felt the Coens downplayed Holly Hunter’s Ed way too much. When Ed and H.I. first get together, their interactions are hilarious, as we realize that despite being on opposite sides of the law, they are equally quirky, simple, and funny. But once Goodman’s Gayle and William Forsythe’s Evelle arrive after breaking out of prison, most of her character is removed, and she exists more as an obstacle to be overcome than an even partner for H.I. Holly Hunter is a great actor, and she’s demonstrated many times over the years (most notably in the Lady of the Lake miniseries a couple years ago) that she can be as weird as anybody. The Coens just didn’t let her stay that way.

Steve, what’s your take on this film being an homage to classic cartoons? Heck, even the biker I didn’t like behaved at times like Wile E. Coyote, most notably when he meets his final fate.

Leftridge: It’s true that Raising Arizona gets pretty Looney Tunes, particularly during those chaotic, thrill-a-second set pieces, like that totally bonkers chase scene after H.I. steals the Huggies or the final showdown with the Lone Biker. With so much comical choreography, camera hijinks, and gut-busting violence, it’s easy to see the film as cartoon-like. Even in the film’s quieter moments, the Coens are so artistic with color, framing, cinematography, set details, production design, etc., that the entire film resembles a sort of fantastical simulacrum of what is actually a fairly wretched cast of characters. As young filmmakers on just their second film, though, I remain amazed by the Brothers’ ability to go for broke on the filmic razzle-dazzle, like that fast rush across the yard, over the fountain, up the ladder, and into Mrs. Arizona’s screaming mouth.

And, yes, it’s clear why Randall “Tex” Cobb didn’t go on to have an illustrious acting career. During the one scene in which he has to actually deliver lines, he can barely do so. Therefore, I’ll join you in saying that the Biker doesn’t entirely work for me. But he looks the part, and the character (or symbol or figment or whatever he is) in an important counterpart to H.I. and Ed. The Coens so love their rural goofballs with their backwater drawls and attempts at erudition (“Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!”) that sometimes a joke or a closeup of a leering, misshapen face falls flat. But I still find most of it very funny and a few parts downright hilarious, even though with their subsequent films — Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo — the Coens got better at editing themselves.

Let’s talk further about the writing. Is there anything to learn from this story, Steve? Is it about anything?

Pick: What is Raising Arizona about? Well sir, I’ll tell you what it’s about. That is, I would tell you if I had any real idea. I guess it’s about the basic goodness of people, even ones as determined to mess things up as H.I. Gayle and Evelle realize the error of their ways after being entranced by the baby. H.I. did it all for love. Nate Sr. can recognize the individual cries of his five babies, and refuses to punish H.I. and Ed for stealing one. The Coens would go on to make a career out of displaying the better qualities of misfits, ne’er-do-wells, and oddballs (until they really pushed hard on the evil front in No Country for Old Men). I think that’s the gist of what’s going on here.

Of course, they are more interested in getting to the various set pieces in this film than they are in any grander theme. What do we remember? H.I. going back to get his mug shot taken by Ed three times. The kidnapping sequence. Gayle bursting from the muck like the Incredible Hulk. The Lone Biker zooming down the road. H.I. picking up the Huggies in the middle of the road from his moving car while arguing with Ed. The cars stopping on a dime without hitting Nate Jr. in his carrier (which, I’m sure, is another specific Looney Tunes homage – has anybody done the research to map out all the similarities?). If there are jokes to be told along the way, they’ll do that. If not, they’ll make sure the story moves towards the next big visual.

It feels as though I’m belittling this film more than it deserves. I actually did enjoy it while I watched it, but it’s got enough shortcomings that my mind keeps dwelling on them more and more as I think further about it. I recognize the developing artistry on display here–the Coens do not make movies that look like what other people are doing, and in 1987, this must have really been a dramatic change of pace much more than it is now that we’ve seen a dozen further films from them, and even more films and especially TV influenced by them. But I have a difficult time feeling excited about Raising Arizona. It made me smile plenty, but rarely laugh, and never invested. Obviously, you have reasons to love it. Last chance: convince me!

Leftridge: I don’t think there’s anything I can say to make you love Raising Arizona other than urge you to watch it again. And again. Like any great, quotable comedy — from Dr. Strangelove to This is Spinal Tap — Coen Brothers films get funnier and more rewarding with repeated viewings. The Coens are especially suited to this kind of revisiting due to how densely they pack their films with visual details and great dialogue. Joel and Ethan are fussy about actors sticking to the scripts, so the dialogue is precise and beguiling in its cracked-poetry composition. After I’m no longer surprised by the zany visual play and plot turns, I can notice more details in each scene and revel in the witty wordplay. A few of the scenes in this film never get old for me, like when Holly Hunter busts out into her “I… love… him… so… much!” bawl when she and H.I. first kidnap little Nathan, Jr. That moment is one of several from this film in my hall of fame.

As for what Raising Arizona might be about, I buy into the idea (and I’m not the first to come up with it) that the film is an allegory for the ways in which we cling to a hopeful future in order to deal with the existential fears of the present. Specifically, the film’s symbolism suggests that this pervasive fear is of nuclear holocaust — note the “P.O.E” graffiti on the bathroom door after Gale and Evelle bust out of prison, an allusion to Dr. Strangelove. With this reading, the Lone Biker personifies the nuclear threat, with his attendant fire, smoke, rumbling thunder, mushroom-cloud afterburner, decimated wildlife, and ultimate detonation. Ed and H.I. represent average humanity in its dichotomous nature, both good (a police officer) and bad (a recidivist criminal) being haunted by and eventually forced to confront that threat. And the baby, of course, symbolizes the hope for the future, which is what everyone wants. For that reason, all of these characters — H.I. and Ed, the escaped convicts, the Biker, Dot and Glen, and the Arizonas — are all desperate to take possession of Nathan, Jr. Then again, this interpretation never dawned on me when I first delighted in the Coens’ screwball fable as a teenager in smalltown Missouri.

Or maybe it was Utah.