The persistent use of language as symbolism in Raising Arizona was already unique in American film at the time of its release, but is especially unique compared to the current climate when language is most often used as a parade of four-letter substitutes for intellectual discourse. Language in Raising Arizona is heightened to a stylistic state that for many people may undermine the need for a reality grounded enough to provide an adequate suspension of belief. Joel and Ethan Coen engage in the use of linguistic symbolism to infuse the dialogue and narration with the ability to portray how language paradoxically acts as barrier to unfiltered communication.
The film derives much of its language from the disparity between the level of speech expected from the characters and the level of language that is actually spoken.
This disparity is there not just for comic effect, but also to contribute fully to the movie’s theme about American self-improvement through upward mobility. H.I. and Ed’s pursuit of a child is symptom of the pursuit of the larger aspect of the American Dream and another aspect is the desire to rise from one strata to the next. The film satirizes the effect of lofty language utilized by those living within a higher class by revealing the truth that the more sophisticated speech becomes, the more likely it is to become confusing. H.I.’s entire narration is populated by haughtily descriptive phrasing to describe simple concepts: “Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” One doubts that the average petty criminal with little education would describe the inability of a woman to get pregnant in such a way, but it works both for comedic effect and to further the theme of language can barring communication.
In addition to H.I.’s narration, the dialogue also works to reveal how terminology works as a symbolic obstruction to simple communication. One of the most hilarious yet satirically incisive scenes in the film reveals the manner in which professional jargon almost seems to be intentionally utilized to create a firewall of misunderstanding. When H.I. appears before parole board language becomes a direct symbol of the way in which law is exploited to support social distinction between the haves and have-nots. The entire conversation about recidivism leads to the actually quite profound joke about the misunderstanding about H.I. “not just telling us what we want to hear.” The language game taking place in this scene is painfully representative of the way that language can be manipulated into symbolic bifurcation between authority and citizen.
The Coen brothers also use language to symbolize the consumerist mentality that has become the foundation for social mobility in America. In the search for the American Dream all aspects of the quest have been boiled
down into consumption; achieving an upward move in social status has less to do with self-improvement than with owning the best possible products. The central thrust behind the McDunnoughs’ desire to realize the America Dream is to produce a baby. After H.I. kidnaps the baby Edwin asks him which one he got. In a use of language dripping with the symbolism of the American consumer culture H.I. replies he doesn’t know and then suggests it really doesn’t even matter because the one he got is “awful damn good. I think I got the best one.”
Language in Raising Arizona is used as a symbolic representation of paradoxical barriers to communication. The film explores the search for the American Dream, which is essentially located in the quest for upward mobility. This quest finds obstacles in the form of the lofty language used by the more educated, professional jargon, and the confusion of consumerism as the goal of the American Dream with self-improvement.