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Coen Brothers’ classics Fargo and The Big Lebowski appear on countless lists of ‘The Greatest Comedies of All Time’. While these films are masterpieces in their own right, for proof that the Coens are masters of the comedy-crime-caper you need look no further than Raising Arizona.
Like Fargo and Lebowski, Arizona is hard to categorise. Is it a comedy that makes you think, or a morality tale that makes you laugh? In the film’s opening sequence a serial robber (Nicolas Cage) falls in love with and marries a police officer (Holly Hunter). After discovering they are incapable of having children, the now-reformed criminal and newly-resigned cop hatch an ingenious plan – they’re going to steal a baby.
Already we see the characters in the film are unconventional. Their principles are flexible, their motivations questionable, and as a result their actions are utterly unpredictable. As viewers we feel uncertain whether we like or dislike the characters. John Goodman, for example, plays an escaped convict who abuses the hospitality of a friend and insults his hosts, and yet is touchingly loyal to his younger brother and to a stranger’s baby. Each action he takes reveals new details about his character, informing our opinions. Not knowing whether a character is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ leaves us feeling uneasy, and eager to see what happens next. But of course, this being a Coen Brothers film, what happens next is never what we might expect.
The plot is ludicrous, bouncing from one tangent to the next. The opening sequence establishes a cycle of being imprisoned, being freed, committing crime then being imprisoned again. It establishes a world of routine. Next, for Cage and Hunter married life seems to become another kind of routine, albeit a much more appealing one. However, once the loving couple go through with stealing the baby the film’s plot is set in motion, and anything resembling routine is destroyed. Suddenly the characters are plunged into a world of FBI Agents, swingers, bank robbers, demonic bikers and furniture salesmen. Their marriage is tested to destruction. With all this going on around them, the couple try desperately to maintain order in their lives, whilst simultaneously attempting to raise a baby they were in no way prepared to raise.
In Raising Arizona, the Coens achieve a remarkable balance between the ridiculous and the relatable. The duo worked on the script for over three months. They read Southwestern tabloids, magazines, and the Bible, all to write convincing dialogue for the characters. Their painstaking attention to perfection pays off, allowing them to indulge the more ridiculous aspects of the story whilst maintaining a necessary sense of credible threat. The comedy is surreal one minute and subtle the next, always catching viewers off-guard.
Despite only being their second film, Raising Arizona is easily comparable to the Coen Brothers’ most accomplished works. It has all the trademarks. The characters are memorable, the plot is satisfyingly complex, and the world it creates is both wholly immersive and refreshingly original.