This review would have completed my survey of the Coen Brothers… had they not insisted on continuing their careers by writing and directing Hail, Caesar. A critic’s work is never finished.
For reasons which I cannot pretend to understand, Raising Arizona is one of the Coen’s most loved movies. As I’ve mentioned in the past, my wife owns it, my son quotes it, and I am forced to watch it at least twice a year. I say forced because, other than the bank robbing scene, and the knuckles across the ceiling scene, this movie does not make me laugh.
I’ve now read the script three times. I’ve read it three times because I can never compel myself to do a Barish review immediately after finishing, so the material always gets dated in my head. During my first read, I obsessed for quite some time over possible name anagrams. Things like H.I. McDonnough being Coen Code for:
Which would be great if it were true. Unfortunately, it isn’t…
I’m sure I would have continued in this esoteric line of criticism, but I never could make anything sensible out of Hi’s name, or Lawrence Smalls name. I’d get wrapped up in Reason… and then Demons… and three hours later, I’d still be staring at a blank page. I realize now that I allowed myself to get stuck in those mental gymnastics because I just do not like this script. Unlocking a secret key was much more appealing to me than rating Raising Arizona on its subtext… or its lack of subtext.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of cleverness in this script. If one were able to get the Coens to speak intelligently about their work, I’m confident they could tell you which myth they were appropriating… and also provide an anagram map. For me, however, it wouldn’t make the script any better if I knew their “serious intentions”. I say this because the script, which is inarguably meant to be a comedy, doesn’t make me laugh. Humor is the strangest of human responses because it is the least subject to critical evaluation. Who am I to disagree if Raising Arizona makes you laugh?
I would subject the script to a formal review, but I’m afraid the score would be too low to make much sense in the overall body of reviews I have done of the other scripts by The Brothers. I say this because this is not a “real” story. The characters are too far removed from ordinary life to rate in terms of subtext and theme. It’s almost as if the Brothers are in a land of magical realism which is peculiar ONLY to them. You can’t call Raising Arizona farce, although that is the closest aesthetic designation that applies. You can’t call it comedy because the exaggeration which is meant to be comedic is not based in reality. If you exaggerate characteristics which don’t exist, you are still stuck with characteristics which don’t exist.
Critically, then, I am at an impasse. There is no fair way for me to rate this script other than to use the uselessly generic “wasn’t for me”. I say that knowing that there are those who would rate this as one of their favorites. In a way this is good for me as a critic. No matter how much science I try to bring to the realm of aesthetics, the human mind will always exceed my ability to quantify it.
We are, truly, a magnificent species.
In spite of that excessively long preamble, I can sum up with a few notes which are useful to my overall study of the Coens. My science is not completely defeated. Whatever they were trying to do [which did not make sense to me] they could not resist infusing this unrateable piece of fiction with their favorite theme:
Love is impossible.
Initially, it appears HI and Ed may be outliers. They look like people who will evade the Coen Curse of a Loveless World. Had Ed not been “barren”, they well might have.
I find this script to be interesting to our study, because it made me think I have more critical work to do. This script made me wonder [for the first time] how often the environment causes the impossibility of love in the Coen Corpus versus how often the cause comes from the actions of the humans in the environment. Some day, when I end my indenture to the Gods of Retail, I will investigate this further.
As I scan my memory of the 15 scripts I have read and reviewed, I find that this may be the only time The Brothers investigate the environmental hypothesis. In overwhelming fashion, their writing supports the idea that it is our own afflicted psychologies which keep us from certain knowledge of another human being. Raising Arizona completes the argument by considering the idea that Love may be impossible because the world is not designed to allow it.
Owing to this [mild] epiphany, I can end this incredibly short [by Barish standards] review of A Brother’s Coen script with yet another endorsement. I am convinced the Coens mean there work to be a philosophical treatise on the problem of other minds. They began their careers knowing what they wanted to say, and they have been consistent in their messaging for more than 30 years. Although I do not always agree with their results, I will always give them a place in the Pantheon of Great Writers for their dedication to Making Art in addition to Making Entertainment. The Coens are likely to remain the first plank in the floor of my argument for the elevation of scriptwriting to its proper place in criticism.
They have shown that the script for Fargo is no less a piece of Art than the script for Death of a Salesman.
I would love to hear, in the comments section, why this script is beloved from those that belove it. Maybe, such a discussion will help unlock the secret to this script. Maybe, it will help unlock the even bigger secret:
Why does humor come in such an unmeasurable spectrum.
Rating: Wasn’t For Me.