"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, September 7, 2012

Raising Arizona

"Every time I put on a lens, Joel and Ethan would ask, 'Does it look wacky enough?'"
– Barry Sonnenfeld, cinematographer, Raising Arizona

The Coen brothers have an incredible knack for creating rich, detailed films with snappy dialogue and little nuances that make them a real joy to watch. Raising Arizona (1987) is no exception. Fresh from their independent success with Blood Simple (1984), the Coens shifted gears rather dramatically, going from a straight-faced thriller to this gonzo screwball comedy about southern white trash and child rearing. Inspired by the writings of William Wordsworth and the films of Preston Sturges, Raising Arizona was made with four times the budget of Blood Simple and released by a major studio, but under the protective eye of Ben Barenholtz, an unsung hero of American independent cinema (responsible for getting David Lynch’s Eraserhead distributed), which allowed the Coens control over their film.

Considered by the Coen brothers to be the second part of their “hayseed trilogy," Raising Arizona follows the misadventures of H.I. ("Call me, 'Hi.'") McDunnough (Nicolas Cage), an inept, but well meaning hillbilly fugitive with a habit of robbing convenience stores and getting caught, each time being sent back to the same prison. He is booked again and again by a female police officer named Ed ("Short for Edwina."), whom he eventually falls in love with, and marries once he is finished his last prison term. H.I. gets a boring 9 to 5 job at Hudsucker Industries, which is a clever little nod to their future film, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), written by the Coens with long time friend Sam Raimi. This was the first time that the Coens alluded to a future project. They would do this again in Miller's Crossing (1990), by calling the building that the main character, Tom Reagan lived in the Barton Arms, a reference to their next film, Barton Fink (1991).

H.I. wisely observes that his job isn't much different from prison, except for the paycheck at the end of every week, and tries to settle down to calm, suburban life, "the salad days," as he calls them. Ed (Holly Hunter) wants to have a baby, but as the couple find out, "her insides were a rocky place where my seeds could find no purchase," and so they decide to steal one of the famous Arizona quintuplets: five babies belonging to local unpainted furniture king, Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). And so begins a grand adventure that has the babysnatchers cross paths with two dimwitted escaped convicts ("We felt the institution no longer had anything to offer us.") who are just too stupid to ever pull off a really successful heist, and a vicious mercenary, Leonard Smalls ("Friends call me, 'Lenny,' but I got no friends.") who looks like a reject out of The Road Warrior (1981), a biker from hell interested in retrieving the baby at all costs.

The Coens keep things brisk and fast paced, with the occasional calm interlude. In most respects the film is akin to a Road Runner cartoon on fast forward with its wild, how-did-they-do-that camera angles and cheery, hillbilly banjo music (courtesy of long-time collaborator Carter Burwell) forever playing in the background. Perhaps the best example of this technique is the exhilarating pursuit for a package of Huggies. What could have been a simple, mundane task of picking up some diapers is raised to a mock epic level as H.I. frantically tries to elude the initial clerk he robbed, the cops who are now in gun-blazing pursuit, the neighborhood dogs he disturbed, and a burly manager of the supermarket he entered in attempt to lose this large group. The Coens use quick cuts and several clever point-of-view shots to set a frenetic pace that never relents until the chase is over. They also mix in some quirky dialogue and the catchy music, complete with yodeling for good effect. In addition, there are little touches here and there that add to chase. For example, when H.I. enters the supermarket the chase music switches to a muzak version of the same banjo music to fit in with, and poke fun at the stereotype of grocery stores. It is these nuances and attention to detail, plus the innovative camera angles, that elevate this film above your average comedy.

Stylistically, Raising Arizona can be seen as an homage, of sorts, to the films of their long-time friend, Sam Raimi. For example, the Coen brothers applied his most famous technique – the “Shakycam,” a camera nailed to a plank, which is then carried by two people who run as fast as they can with it. This produces a jarring effect where you feel like you a part of the action and it was put to good use throughout the film, This worried the studio who debated selling public shares in the film after seeing dailies. Where Raimi’s films are often criticized for merely being exercises in breathtaking camera techniques and flashy style, the Coens also include insanely quotable dialogue (the kind of which cult films are made of), a strong plot, and colorful, memorable characters. Raising Arizona showed that the Coens had clearly surpassed their mentor.

The crowning touch of Raising Arizona is its excellent cast. With his out of control, Woody Woodpecker hairdo, huge side burns, and cheesy mustache, Nicolas Cage is the epitome of southern white trash. He makes H.I. a comic, yet tragic figure wrestling with his own inner demons. He wants to lead a good life, but the lure of robbing convenience stores seems too strong to resist. Holly Hunter plays Ed with a ton of spunky charm, complete with the thickest southern accent of any of the characters as the finishing touch. The way she delivers some of her lines, you almost need subtitles as her accent is so thick. The Coens are clearly poking fun at the stereotype of such accents. John Goodman and William Forsythe, as the two escaped convicts Gale and Evelle, almost steal the film from Cage and Hunter. Goodman and Forsythe seem to enjoy playing their roles to the hilt, reveling in their dumb crook characters destined to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Forsythe, who went on to play mostly villains and tough guys in various films and television, shows what an untapped comic resource he is, playing so well off of Goodman, as evident in the scene where they rob a bank. I would love to see these guys team up again for another comedy.

An informal company of cast and crew that would become regular additions to many Coen brothers films, begins to emerge with Raising Arizona. Character actor, M. Emmet Walsh, who was so effective as the trashy private detective in Blood Simple makes a cameo as H.I.'s obnoxious co-worker (complete with Hudsucker logo on his outfit), while actress Frances McDormand, who also starred in the Coens’ debut film, makes an appearance in Raising Arizona as an abrasive white trash housewife (“l just love biblical names. If I had another little boy, I'd name him Jason, Caleb or Tab.”). This film was the first of several memorable collaborations with John Goodman who has become a favorite of the Coens. Behind the camera saw the return of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and composer Carter Burwell, both of whom would continue to work with the Coens on subsequent projects.

Like many of the Coen brothers’ films, Raising Arizona is steeped in classic literature. For example, critic, Rodney Hill found references to John Steinbeck's novel, Of Mice and Men. The biker from hell is named Leonard Smalls and the big, mentally slow man in Steinbeck's novel is also named Lennie Small. In addition, William Faulkner wrote a series of stories about the Snopes family and the brothers who break out of prison in the film are Gale and Evelle Snopes. The works of Flannery O'Connor have also been cited as an influence on Raising Arizona. Joel said in an interview that the term, “warthog from hell,” comes from a short story of O’Connor’s, entitled, “Revelation.”

In terms of casting, they wrote the role of Ed with Holly Hunter in mind but only as they worked on it and not during the initial stages. According to Ethan, the character of Ed "wasn't a reflection of who Holly is so much as a part it'd be fun to see her play.” For the ne’er-do-well brothers, William Forsythe came in first and read for the part of Gale but thought he was better suited for the Evelle part. When John Goodman came in to read next, the Coens asked Forsythe to stay so that he could read with Goodman and they tested well together.

The Coen brothers spent ten weeks rehearsing with the actors and running through scenes on various locations. They had a $6 million budget to work with – three million came from Circle Films and three million from 20th Century Fox. The film was shot over ten weeks in Phoenix, Arizona.

Raising Arizona received mixed review from critics. Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “To their old fascination with Sunbelt pathology, to their side-winding Steadicam and pristine command of screen space, the Coens have added a robust humor, a plot that keeps outwitting expectations and a ... dollop of sympathy for their forlorn kidnapers.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “The Coens are coming from the New Left-Field with this zany answer to the alarmist milk-carton-kids campaign, a send-up of endearing dolts, desperation and disposable diapers. They got by with murder in Blood Simple and now they get by with baby rustling in the best kidnapping comedy since last summer's Ruthless People.” The Chicago Reader’s Pat Graham wrote, “The snickering humor that percolated through the Coens' debut, Blood Simple, is the whole show here, and it's damn near hysterical.”

However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised the screenplay but found fault with the direction, which he felt was “without decisive style. “Raising Arizona has the manner of a Jonathan Demme film – say Handle With Care or Melvin and Howard – directed by someone else. Its automobile chases are appropriately frantic, but they've been shot and edited with the kind of clumsiness that television producers try to cover up with laugh tracks.” Amazingly, Roger Ebert gave the film one-and-a-half stars and wrote, “It cannot decide if it is about real people, or comic exaggerations. It moves so uneasily from one level of reality to another that finally we're just baffled. Comedy often depends on frustrating the audience's expectations. But how can it work when we don't have a clue about what to expect.”

The Coen brothers aren't afraid to go after any facet of the south, poking fun at everything from H.I.'s boss and his family, who give new meaning to the term inbreeding, to prison life, and southern hospitality. At times, you can never quite tell if they're making fun of this culture or trying to say something serious, instead they leave it up to the audience to decide. Through the use of an outrageous, satirical style, the Coens are really commenting on parenthood, suggesting that raising a child is no easy task. They do this by taking normal problems and situations and exaggerating them to an unbelievable level of caricature. The Coens also developed their own stylistic camera techniques, incredible attention to details, and clever dialogue that would appear in an even more improved state in their later films. The film made a tidy sum, grossing $22 million. The financial success of the Raising Arizona prompted Warner Brothers to offer them Batman (1989) but they wisely turned the studio down and made Miller’s Crossing instead.


  1. Great review for the Coen Bros. stellar, and still way too under appreciated, sophomore film. It's such a blast. It is a "gonzo screwball comedy" as you state, but I also believe it's the brother's first stab at a Western, too. And a wonderful mash-up it is, along with fantastic character performances throughout. Well done, J.D.

  2. THere isn't anything the Coen's have done that I won't watch. I'm amazed at the range they achieve while using their trademark dark wit and entertaining dialogue every time out. Raising Arizona is an excellent comedy. I only wish there were more like it.

  3. This is one of those movies (same as The Big Lebowski) that I can just watch and watch over again and never get tired of, the comedy is just so dead on! That scene where Holly Hunter first sees the baby and she starts crying cause "he's so beautiful!" ha ha so hilarious, and that biker dude from hell, he's like Mad Max, but old and fucked up. Ha, I love this movie so.

    Agree that it feels like a Raimi film at times, specially when it comes to all that camera movement, the scene in the supermarket is so beautifully shot, such simetry, everything so perfect, as you say, attention to detail. Thats what I love about the Cohens, they don't just make a movie, they make something special.

  4. Ah, back when Nicholas Cage had some artistic integrity...

  5. le0pard13:

    Thanks my friend! I guess it is something of an underrated film of theirs. Or maybe slightly forgotten since later triumphs like FARGO and beloved cult faves like THE BIG LEBOWSKI have kinda eclipsed it. I still love the film dearly and enjoy watching it every so often.

    Brent Allard:

    Agreed! RAISING ARIZONA was part of an incredible run of films for the Coens in the '80s and '90s. It is definitely one of their very best, IMO.

    The Film Connoisseur:

    I couldn't agree more. There is a very high re-watchability factor with this film. There are so many memorable scenes and bits of dialogue, like when the police ask Nathan Arizona what kind of pajamas his son was wearing when he was kidnapped and he says, "I don't know. They had Yodas and shit on them." Makes me laugh every time. It is little moments like that that make the film so good.

    Steven S:

    Heh! Ain't that the truth!