As close as we’ve ever gotten to a live action version of The Roadrunner, the Coen Brother’s slapstick comedy-action-oddity sets off at a lunatic pace and never stops along the way (except to pick up the occasional pack of Huggies) to an ending that would make no sense in anything other than this film. Held together by a string of over-the-top performances, including a never better Nicholas Cage (channelling the weirdness of his earlier roles into the bugged out crazy that he’s auto piloted on for the last ten years), it’s the sort of film that doesn’t make an iota of sense afterwards, but in its own world is perfectly logical. Raising Arizona sets out its stall early and sticks by it no matter what type of look it gets from the rest of the world, confident in what it’s doing.
Key to its success is the laid back voiceover drawing the audience into the action, which starts off as the world’s most unreliable narrator but eventually softens into a heartfelt plea for the audiences sympathy and understanding of what drove him to his crimes. It’s difficult to imagine the film without the narration, and it softens the impact of what could otherwise have been turned into quite a serious drama about a couple’s desperation for a child (and no doubt the Coen’s could pull off that film as well, although no doubt filtered through their left field sensibilities). This opening drawl also introduces the rest of the (principal) characters perfectly, Holly Hunter’s motherly policewoman who appears to be the calm centre but gradually unravels, the rest of the inmates in the prison (mercilessly riffed on years later in Con Air), before launching the film properly with probably the funniest scenes of reckless child endangerment in cinema (although, admittedly the list is a small one). From here the film rarely falters, each new character more loveably grotesque than the previous. Indeed, the more grotesque, the more love they receive from the Coen’s (with particular love being directed at Joel’s wife Frances Mcdormand as the world’s least suitable mother). Only the demonic presence of Leonard Smalls (played to perfection by Randall “Tex” Cobb, looking as if he’s spent a lifetime outrunning the law in some post-apocalyptic wasteland) is treated as a real figure of threat, the rest being merely incompetent criminals rather than real villains who are more likely to be a danger to themselves than anyone else. The narrator only avoids jail come the end due to his open hearted nature appealing to the victim and because he’s so incompetent at what he does. Raising Arizona is as much about redemption as anything else, all of the characters find it (or have it forced upon them, albeit benevolently) by external forces come the end (through respectively parenthood, the realisation that they belong in prison, parenthood and football).
One of the overwhelming things you remember about the film afterwards is the sense of constant energy. It’s a film that rarely takes a break (the opening narration winds things up, the closing one brings it down), the camera is barely still, never moving backwards (characters often run from it, but it never moves away from them), often moving from one odd angle to another, or barrelling down the highway at speed barely a foot from the ground (this is a film where we only realise who it is being told to come the end is as important as the tale itself, it makes sense of the camera). Barry Sonnenfeld (the cinematographer) would later take the tricks used throughout this film and use them to define the look of The Addams Family (a far more conventional comedy), although there they aren’t quite as successful.
Everyone plays their role at maximum volume, characters rarely talk – they shout. Indeed, part of what makes Leonard Smalls so malevolent is that he’s quiet, he feels out of place in the rest of the world with his polite, well mannered tones (he’s the only character who doesn’t swear – although even that isn’t the normally expected profanity). The sound design also contributes to this; the (cartoon like) violence is intensified by over-the-top sounds – Cage being dragged along the asphalt from under the car, the near constant sound of shotguns being cocked come the end – and there’s times that you feel it would still work without dialogue, although that would be a pity as it’s hilarious in it’s almost constant barbs, it’s never realistic, but the Coen’s ear for dialogue is superb, taking local dialect and insisting on its delivery almost as fast as possible – they clearly have a love of the comedies of Howard Hawks. One curious aspect is that its a comedy that contains no punch lines, the comedy comes from taking real dialogue and twisting it (often in an inappropriate manner) until it becomes funny. The lines only make sense in the film, it’s not quotable outside (only The Big Lebowski has quotable dialogue, which may explain why it’s my least favourite Coen film).
They’d go on to make bigger & better films, but this remains the Coen’s purest comedy. More surefooted than The Hudsucker Proxy, more heart than Intolerable Cruelty, it’s so committed to its ludicrous ideals that it’s infectious. Only True Grit has as much heart as this, a sense of genuine love for every frame of its being coming through. In the end, Raising Arizona works because it loves its oddball characters and situations and wants them to be loved by everyone else as well, it isn’t malevolent or evil, it doesn’t delight in pain, it just happens to contain those things along the way.