I must first blaspheme before I reach my true point:
I don’t laugh as hard at Raising Arizona as I once did.
I’ve laughed hard at it before. Hard enough to unsettle my stomach and almost get sick back at Northern Virginia’s Fair Oaks Mall in 1987. My whole family saw it. It was the first time any of us saw a Coen Brothers film, as it was for lots of people, and we “got it” immediately.
How many times have I seen Raising Arizona since then? Couldn’t tell you. Lots. I know the weird rhythms of the film. I can recite large chunks of it. I have Carter Burwell’s score on CD (paired with his score to Blood Simple). I know that Joel and Ethan Coen once wrote an essay in character as editor Roderick Jaynes -- who doesn’t exist; they use “Roderick Jaynes” when they themselves edit their films, like with Blood Simple and Fargo -- getting pissy about editing decisions they’d made on the flick. The term “family unit” is common currency in my family. The movie’s so familiar that the laughs don’t come from anything like surprise anymore.
But the story and the emotions behind it? Still work. I know because I got a little emotional at the film. More than once, in fact.
See, most of these characters aren’t quite self-aware enough to know how absurd things are in this movie. Nicolas Cage’s H.I. isn’t; he’s just trying to make things work, and he keeps spinning into disaster or almost spinning into it. He’s living, and thinking, seriously; it’s just that he seriously thinks, for instance, that robbing stores is a viable option. He has no distance from his situation; he can’t laugh about it. He’s not the smartest guy, but the film isn’t making fun of him for not being the smartest guy. And he quickly senses how much trouble he and his wife Ed brought on themselves because they freakin’ kidnapped a baby. That they terrified a family by doing that. This is serious stuff, and the absurdity of the movie and the over-the-top Evil Dead-style camera moves don’t undercut that.
You can feel the seriousness if you’re paying attention. I was.
Now my 22-years-older self can better understand, for instance, how crappy the situation is that H.I.’s boss Glen puts H.I. in. (And no, Glen, that is NOT what “open marriage“ is, so don‘t smugly call it that. On behalf of several friends of mine who are poly and are making open relationships work, I’m now even more glad you ran into that cactus.) I can see how unfair John Goodman and William Forsythe’s escaped-con characters are when they keep saying what they think is going on in H.I. and Ed’s marriage. And both H.I. and Ed have to learn uncomfortable truths about themselves and each other, truths that make them wonder if they can make their marriage work. And making relationships work is such a big job; it‘s the longest-running job all of us have. Our lessons about relationships don’t usually come from crime, or from being chased by apocalyptically dirty and surprisingly tattooed bikers. They often come in quiet moments, the moments when you figure out whether or not you and someone else are comfortable just sitting together, just sharing some space; or moments when you’re dealing with an argument’s aftermath and wondering how you two can patch up whatever hurt came from the argument. Transitional moments, quiet moments, even boring moments, you and your partner are still there, still together, and still -- I hope -- feeling good about that other person being there. Raising Arizona has those moments. Which are not boring for the audience, because the Coens know how to tell a story, but you can see the transitions and the quiet times between Ed and H.I. You can see the ups and downs, ups and downs that are augmented by the film’s exaggerated action and willingness to be borderline (but never completely) cartoonish. And the payoff at the very end is an odd payoff: a long, dreamy montage that’s short on jokes and long on love, with ever-growing hints of joy that the people in the story achieved, that they reached. The reminder that things don’t always work out, but that a lot of times they do.
I love this film. Even if I don’t laugh at it as much as my past self did.