After their deliciously dark and sinister debut ‘Blood Simple’ (1984) marked a tone they would continue to return to throughout their careers, the Coen Brothers’ second film, ‘Raising Arizona’, set in line another genre they have also returned to on many occasions – that of the mediocre absurd comedy.
A Coen Brothers comedy can be spotted easily for its visually flamboyant style, and its high population of foolhardy idiots. Think of George Clooney in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (2000), or George Clooney in ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ (2003), or George Clooney in ‘Burn After Reading’ (2008), or George Clooney in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (2016), for instance. And although there is a shortage of George Clooneys here in Raising Arizona, there is no shortage of idiots.
Here, Nic Cage takes on the mantle of one of the aforementioned idiots. Replete with a plethora of tragic flowery Hawaiian shirts, and even more tragic facial hair, he spends most of his time going in and coming out of prison. However, starting afresh, he and his new wife (Holly Hunter) are intent on starting a family. Unable to have children of their own, they instead decide to steal one of the famous ‘Arizona Quints’: Harry, Barry, Larry, Garry, and Nathan. And with Nathan in hand, what follows is a crime-comedy-caper, interspersed with numerous chase scenes, as they try and stay away from the law.
While there are a small handful of laughs through the film, Raising Arizona – as with later comedies such as ‘The Ladykillers’ (2004) and ‘Burn After Reading’ (2008) – suffers from the problem that the Coens’ absurdist humour runs flat. The mere presence of a character with bad dress sense and a silly moustache cannot generate laughs (even Charlie Chaplin could not rely solely on that). The funniest Coens films actually tend to be their dark dramas, such as Barton Fink (1991) and Fargo (1996), where a small amount of absurdity balances perfectly against a black, melancholic streak.
One utterly irrelevant side note about Raising Arizona worth mentioning involves John Goodman (in his first of six supporting roles in the Coen’s films), escaping from prison, in a scene which clearly parodies Tim Robbins’ escape in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (Frank Darabont, 1994) – he crawls through a mud-soaked field in the pouring rain and lifts his hands to the air in salvation. But those of you less mathematically-challenged will note that Raising Arizona pre-dates The Shawshank Redemption by seven years. And on top of this, the cinematography of The Shawshank Redemption was done by 12-time Coen-collaborator, Roger Deakins. I’m beginning to think that The Shawshank Redemption may have been an elaborate parody of Raising Arizona …
One cannot fail to be somewhat disappointed with each Coen comedy (with the exception of Hail, Caesar!), given the high quality of their other films. Their dramas also demonstrate that they clearly have a fantastic dark sense of humour. But their comedies – while often still funnier than many other examples from the genre – have never even managed to deliver the same level of humour as their dramas. And sadly, Raising Arizona is no exception.