The Finally Screenings: I Just Saw Raising Arizona For the First Time

In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.

Until now I’ve only run the risk of offending comedy nerds in my blithe ramblings about classic films I should have seen a long time ago, but this week I’m happy to report I also have the potential to offend legit film buffs by my having only just now watched Raising Arizona.

Anyone who has seen Raising Arizona knows that, while funny, it’s known more for its influence and renown as a film than as just a comedy. The Coen Brothers have long been known as masters of dark comedy, but it’s always been showcased in sharp genre work and rich cinematography. So judging Raising Arizona for its value as a comedy is sort of like judging Rubber Soul for its use of stereo — it may be missing the point.

But that’s the burden I bear.

Fortunately for my meager film cred, I liked Raising Arizona a lot. There’s enough that works to outweigh what doesn’t, and as a comedy, it holds up, partially due to the support by a solid piece of filmmaking.

I don’t need to tell any of you about the Coens’ abilities as filmmakers or comedians, but it’s interesting to see the beginning stages of what would become their own brand of austere beauty. There are pieces here and there that seem polished and contemporary with their later work, but in many cases it all feels rudimentary – everything is a little bigger, brighter and louder than it would later become (Leonard Smalls feels like Baby’s First Anton Chigurh, for instance). But this is a movie that wears it well. The Coens didn’t try to make No Country in 1987, they tried to make Raising Arizona, and they succeeded in telling the story they wanted to tell with the tools they had at the time.

Nicolas Cage carries the movie really well. He’s funny, charismatic and appropriately as self-aware and clueless as the scene requires. It’s not too surprising – Cage is booed now for the same qualities he was lauded for in the 80s and 90s: his goofy, energetic commitment and general sense of being half a step behind the audience. H.I. is a great character, introduced, developed and executed well, and that’s to Cage’s credit as well as the Coen’s ability to make a leading guy richly weird and endearing. I said earlier that this isn’t a film known for its comedic influence, but if that opening montage didn’t play a part in the creation of Bottle Rocket’s Dignan (and perhaps Wes Anderson’s storytelling style overall), I’d be very surprised.

Holly Hunter is good too, though clearly cast more for her dramatic chops than her comedic ones. John Goodman and William Forsythe are maybe the most classically Coen-esque characters – the Coens’ specific brand of bumbling, semi-reprehensible B-characters was perfected early, and their formula has remained perfectly consistent for years – Walter and Donny, Pete and Delmar – it keeps working, so why change it? There are a lot of really solid jokes as well – both robberies by the Snoats brothers are hilarious and the depiction of Glen’s ridiculous family is perfectly strange, trashy and disgusting. And as a bonus, that scene sets up the “FART” graffiti callback, which is fantastic.

I think the most surprising element of Raising Arizona is also its most touching – the attempt to tie up every conceivable loose end, not only from a plot perspective but to redeem every character morally, is shocking to see from a filmmaking team that has made a brand in recent years out of being reliably bleak. And even more surprising that it comes at the cost of the film’s pacing. From the opening montage to the soul-bearing return-the-baby scene to the closing dream sequence, the Coens are so concerned with developing and redeeming their characters that they spell out every revelation with alarming disregard for the pace and balance of the film. Which, to be completely honest, I’m totally fine with. But as the Coens have moved forward and become true, polished auteurs, it’s a little sad that they’ve lost that willingness to hold the closing credits to make sure we know everything is going to be okay. I don’t blame them, of course, but it’s a sweet way to tie up a pretty dark film, and I’ve often walked out of recent Coen Brothers movies wishing for a little stronger taste of that.

But in a way, and to bring it back to the comedy a little, it’s reassuring to know that the Coens once had stake in redeeming their characters, because although their films have grown increasingly subtle and dark, the themes they explore are the same. And having gotten the heavy-handedness out of their systems in their early films like Raising Arizona, they feel freer to take us deeper into strange, bleak and uncomfortable places, knowing that their audience shares a common understanding of their characters, what they want and what is important to them. And for the jokes, the same applies – their storytelling has been so consistent that they’re able to pick up where they left off in each film, starting further down the road and getting to jokes they might not have been able to explore in early films regardless of their experience. I don’t think it would be as easy to buy O Brother, Where Art Thou, for example, without knowing a little bit about the Coen’s flavor — there’s so much going on in that movie that jokes, on top of everything, can be a little intimidating. But with a basic understanding of themes and characters that the Coens explore deeper as their careers progress, it enriches the jokes and the film as a whole.

It’s a cool way to build a body of work, and I think that, cinematic or directorial fawning aside, the real value of auteurs like the Coens is watching them grow and keep adding to a career that speaks both as its parts and its sum.

So it holds up. It’s a quirky, loud, colorful early piece of comedy by two guys with a ton of potential and a good eye for solid comedy in legit film. And as such, it’s much more resilient than films that aimed lower. When you have solid characters, good writing, a great cast and a beautiful film, what is there to fade with age?

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.

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