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Bringing Up Baby: How the Coen Brothers Delivered a Classic Comedy with Raising Arizona

Only the Coen’s could manage to make the tale of child snatching funny. There’s so many frankly hilarious moments in Raising Arizona, that the film (despite its subject matter) is never truly macabre or depressing. The film’s plot is relatively simply; boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl get married, and make an addition to their family. By kidnapping a baby.

Nicolas Cage plays H.I McDunnough, an ex-con who falls in love with Holly Hunter’s police photographer, Ed when they meet during a police lineup. H.I. decides to give up his life of crime and gets a legitimate job working as welder in a factory, while Ed continues her police work until they decide they want to have a child. However, Ed learns that she is infertile and their attempts to adopt are foiled by H.I.’s criminal history. Ed is devastated and H.I. feels helpless, until a small ray of hope emerges. A story appears in the paper celebrating the birth of the ‘Arizona Quints’, quintuplet sons. Born to local furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife Florence (Lynne Kitei).

Figuring that the Arizonas have “more than they can handle”, Ed and H.I. resolve to take one of the babies as their own. The McDonough’s do their best to keep their crime secret, but of course a secret like this one won’t stay unnoticed for long. Especially when the ”Lone Biker Of The Apocalypse” aka Leonard Smalls (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) becomes involved in the ever-twisting plot in the quest to own the baby.

Cage and Hunter

The Coen Brothers wanted this film to be the polar opposite of their debut, Blood Simple (1984). As such, they made it more positive and upbeat with sympathetic characters. Critics had a high regard for their first film, with Roger Ebert stating that the film had ‘’high energy and intensity’’ and praising the film for being ‘’shot with a lot of style, some of it self-conscious, but deliberately so.’’ He was not the only critic to praise Blood Simple, many had been in awe at how the young directors managed to take on a genre almost as old as cinema itself and make it seem so fresh and original.

However, the first initial responses to Raising Arizona, were less than complimentary. With Vincent Canby commenting that the film was ‘’full of technical expertise but has no life of its own’’ and that ‘’the direction is without decisive style.’’ Canby ends his rather disheartening review with the somewhat blunt statement “Raising Arizona may well be a comedy that’s more entertaining to read than to see.’’ However, I wholly disagree with this viewpoint, I consider Raising Arizona as one of the Coen’s best films. It is full of life, comedy and larger than life performances, which shows just how original and unique the brothers are as filmmakers and storytellers.

Personally speaking, I consider Raising Arizona to be the first film in which the Coen’s found their true cinematic voice. By bringing a series of unconventional characters into a reality that film goers would be familiar with. Often these characters of the Coen’s imaginations are wild, eccentric and very unpredictable, but they’re complex, with real problems, real desires and real flaws.

The success of Raising Arizona is down to a combination of different aspects. I would say that a good starting point is the sharp and funny script which deals with a range of topics including religion, the ideology of the Nuclear family, and the frenzy of a media panic. The brothers were influenced by the works of Preston Sturges and writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, known for her southern literature. And, their admiration for literature shines through their well-written script.

The film’s dialogue is rich with quotable lines and exchanges, which reflects the Coen’s ear for colourful and descriptive language. The script took just over three and a half months to write, and in order to create their characters’ dialect, the Coen Brothers created a hybrid of local dialect and the assumed reading material of the characters, namely, magazines and the Bible. Each character seems to have their own unique way of speaking and use of the English language, for example the way Ed says the word fiance as ‘”fy-ance” which reveals the social class that Ed belongs to. But rather than the other characters mock each other, they interact within one and other in a sincere and honest fashion, and therefore it is left to the viewer to work out which lines of dialogue to laugh at.

holly hunter.jpg

The starting point of scriptwriting came from the idea of the character of H.I., who has the desire to live a regular life within the boundaries of the law. Cage’s performance is the perfect blend of eccentricity, energy and comedy, without being too over-the-top. Somehow, the Coen’s managed to control Cage’s enthusiasm for performing, and it pays off. Cage is one of those actors that needs to be restrained, and controlled in order to deliver the best performance. When he is fully let off the leash and allowed to chew up all of the scenery, he becomes too laughable. The Coen’s did allow Cage to have some freedom, according to Ethan Coen, Cage was obsessed about his Woody Woodpecker haircut and that it reacted to H.I.’s stress level. There is something larger than life with H.I with his spiky messy hair, his bright Hawaiian shirts, and bugged out eyes, and it is hard to imagine anyone else in this role, other than Cage.

It is also hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Ed, than Holly Hunter. In fact, the Coen brothers wrote Hunter’s character specifically for her. She is so charming, down to earth and funny in this role, and more importantly she holds her own alongside the whirlwind that is Cage. The supporting cast is strong too, with Coen regulars like Frances McDormand and John Goodman appearing, to deliver great turns.

Aside from the well crafted script  and the performances, it is the film’s cinematography which helps to bring across the makings of the Coen’s distinct style. The film’s cinematographer was Barry Sonnerfeld who managed to create an unique shooting style full of long but sped up tracking shots. With POV’s from the baby’s perspective which helps portray this vast world, and the effective use of  wide shots creating a illusion of distance and space between characters.

One of the film’s the most iconic shot appears within a dream that H.I. The camera starts by following a lone Biker speeding along a desert road, the camera enters a cul-de-sac and then into the driveway of the home of the stolen baby where the mother has discovered that her child is missing. The use of POV, with the fast zooming camera, creates a feeling of unease and dread, but it is also quite comical, especially as the ‘’camera’’ climbs up the ladder, into the window. The camera becomes a character of its own will, and it makes the film feel alive in that sense. This helps to indicate the Coen’s appreciation of the camera as a character, and shows their creativity as filmmakers, as this scene in particular helps the mood remain amusing, but also leaves us feeling slightly uncomfortable, so we empathise with both the baby’s mother and with the character of H.I as well.

Cage Raising Arizona.jpg

On the surface, Raising Arizona may appear cartoonish and disorganised; however the Coens had a vision and they executed it well. The pair came to the set with a complete script and storyboard. With a budget of just over five million dollars, Joel Coen noted that “to obtain maximum from that money, the movie has to be meticulously prepared.” Their planning paid off, and as a result it shows just how capable the filmmakers are. They weren’t afraid to tackle a genre like comedy, which is often described as the hardest genre to get right.

Raising Arizona achieves everything the Coens set out to achieve and the end result is a beautifully shot, funny and yet a moving story. If you haven’t already seen Raising Arizona then I encourage you to do so, don’t just take it from me. Edgar Wright has called it his favourite film of all time. Simply put this film is a splendid comedy where the action and humor is continuous from start to finish, it will leave you grinning from ear to ear, and in my opinion is a perfect introduction into the world of the Coen Brothers.


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