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Raising Arizona at 35: The Coens’ Purest Comedy 

Raising Arizona: A comedy beyond belief

The work of Joel and Ethan Coen has a lot of laughs in it, whether it’s moments of levity in films of other genres, or full-on comedy. When it comes to the latter, the best of the brothers’ work in 1987’s Raising Arizona, which arrived 35 years ago this week. Sure, one could make an argument for The Big Lebowski, but Lebowski was a Marlowe-liek detective story couched in comedy, more than a pure comedy. 

It was the second film in the Coens’ directing filmography, following the comparatively laugh-free Blood Simple, and the brothers went into a very different direction with Raising Arizona. 

The film is set in the titular state and is a comedy of love, crime, and redemption.  H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) is a career criminal and ne’er-do-well, in and out of prison, who sees a shot at redemption when he meets Ed (Holly Hunter), a sweet police officer. Following his release, they marry and take up in a mobile home, but soon find themselves unable to conceive a child. 

Cage’s Hi speaks with a cadence that will be familiar to those who have read Elmore Leonard novels, or perhaps the screen adaptations of them (though this isn’t one): He’s a criminal who doesn’t appear all that smart, but is uncommonly erudite and uses big words. 

Raising Arizona
Image: 20th Century Fox

When local furniture magnate Nathan Arizona becomes the father of quintuplets,  the couple kidnaps one of them, called  Nathan Jr., and raises him as their own son. Meanwhile, Cage is haunted by visions of a Lone Biker of the Apocalypse (Randall “Tex” Cobb) who turns out to be very real. 

But once a couple of Hi’s ex-con friends (John Goodman and William Forsythe (quite literally) resurface, he’s tempted back into a life of crime. 

This leads into the film’s most famous scene, and probably the funniest sequence of the Coens’ entire oeuvre: That’s the suburban chase scene, featuring Cage, a truck driver, a bunch of dogs, and a skinny convenience store clerk with a big gun. 

The score, by longtime Coen collaborator Carter Burwell, is heavy on the yodeling, and I always especially appreciated that in the grocery store portion, the Muzak playing is the same song, slowed down, as the rest of the scene. 

Raising Arizona
Image collage via Art of the Title

It all ends happily, or at least in a vision of happiness, and the film puts the audience of a position to root heavily for a couple of people who kidnapped a baby, even if they were absolved by the baby’s father (Trey Wilson.) 

Several of the film’s regulars showed up in other Coen films, especially Hunter and Goodman, while Frances McDormand also had a small role. Wilson was set to star in the brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, although he died shortly before production. Cage, however, never appeared in another film for the Coens again. 

Raising Arizona is far from the deepest, most profound, or best film in the Coens’ filmography. But thanks to the performances, the vibe, and that great chase scene, it is the funniest. 

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Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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