Published on October 27th, 2017 | by Dan Nicholls0
Suburbicon is the new film from George Clooney, stepping behind the camera with a Coen Brothers script. So much pedigree, but it’s hit and miss.
Usually the names “Coen” and “Clooney” go together like goofball peas and carrots. From O Brother, Where Art Thou? to Burn After Reading, the combo almost always guarantees quality. So when you take a script originating from the Coens and mix in Mr. Clooney and his regular collaborators you should be dressed for success, right?
Suburbicon, a new film directed by George Clooney, puts its best foot forward. As strongly as it may be built, however, it doesn’t have a clear idea of what path it should be following.
Despite his leading man charisma and acting chops to boot, George Clooney has silently started a transition towards becoming one of the more eclectic actor-directors working today. Some may scoff at the idea of “Clooney the auteur” following the (deserved) weak reception that his last feature, The Monuments Men, gathered. The multi hyphenate, for the first time, has taken a stab at solely staying behind the camera instead of putting himself in front as well for added marquee value. That end result, Suburbicon, is probably going to be a wash for most viewers. But for those who are willing to accept its weaker points in service of a more cynical picture, the movie just might sneak up on you.
The idyllic 1959 town of Suburbicon is a family values/”wholesome” white washed community until two major events happen: a home invasion results in the death of a valued citizen, and an African America family moves in on the block. For the misguided white populous only one of these events is considered a true threat. Indeed, residents become far more concerned with the calm lives of their black neighbors than with the open-ended, seemingly random crime that has taken away a valued member of a space that was supposed to be peaceful and pure.
The new black family in town, the Mayers, is a group of fine people. Humble, quiet, polite – as enlightened 2017 viewers will undoubtedly recognize immediately, they pose no threat to society. They never have, and they never will. To the ignorant denizens of Suburbicon, however, the family of three may as well be one giant ticking time bomb. Hindsight is 20/20, but the film Suburbicon itself doesn’t lock its eyes on these issues for long enough that it leaves an impact.
By putting a mirror up to modern day society the filmmakers twist the material into something that it frankly wasn’t designed to be. As a “message” or “issue” film, Suburbicon doesn’t have enough to stick an impactful lesson on its landing. As a genre exercise in deranged and exasperated people pushed to the edge, it’s considerably more rewarding. There’s a cut of this movie somewhere that’s a tight madcap drama with elements of black comedy tossed in for good measure. What we get, earnest as it may be, isn’t quite the homerun we had hoped for. Clooney et al. should’ve stuck to one message instead of two.
With murder and mystery on the mind, the Lodge family couldn’t be more indifferent to all the racial turmoil surrounding them. After the loss of his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), mild-mannered Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) attempts to return his life to a state of normalcy by going back to work and inviting his late wife’s sister, Margaret (also Julianne Moore), to move in. Margaret is meant to serve as a replacement mother figure for our young protagonist, Gardner’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe). We see the tale through Nicky’s eyes and begin to spot the wrinkles in this narrative before anyone else does. He smells something fishy, and the stench soon spreads.
Of course, the home invasion wasn’t random, and the adults hold hidden agendas close to the vest. In this sense, Suburbicon resembles Fargo on a miniscule scale: milquetoast families torn asunder due to plots hatched by one of their own. That Coen Brothers masterpiece runs laps around Suburbicon, but you can tell why that Oscar-winner duo wrote the screenplay for this film in the first place. It’s a deeply dark satire rooted in irony and cruelty. In other words, it’s right in the Coen wheelhouse. Had the film focused solely on this issue it might have been more successful, because as timely and important as the subplot with the black neighbors is, it sort of distracts the audience from getting tightly wound up in the main storyline.
By the time Oscar Isaac (giving the film’s best performance) shows up and starts sniffing around the Lodge household as an insurance claims agent, you can tell the goose is nearly cooked. These familiar noir beats are telegraphed easily and broadly to the audience but it is surprising just how fresh and “fun” they feel. Though these are disturbed people living in a conflicted time there is still pleasure to be derived from watching the whole scheme crumble upon itself.
The film isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious, nor is it wholly engrossing as a straight-up thriller. The mixed results of shaking these tones together easily identify the divide between the screenplay’s focused parable (written by Joel and Ethan Coen) and the forced sociologically conscious elements (provided, one has to assume, by co-screenwriters Clooney and Grant Heslov).
Suburbicon is ultimately a jumble of themes and tones that doesn’t quite gel as a singular piece. However, it is entertaining enough thanks to the sensibilities of its lead performers and a seasoned artist at the helm. It isn’t an outright wash. I, for one, got a good kick out of the film and found myself enjoying it despite the nagging instances that tried to persuade me otherwise. Others may not find themselves in as fortuitous circumstances. What Suburbicon does well, it really hits the mark.
For the people who aren’t afraid to confront mankind’s darker inclinations, Suburbicon may be a cloud of welcome smog in your lungs. General audiences aren’t likely to be as pleased – turned off and given the cold shoulder to a picture that doesn’t invest itself into anything enough to be considered straightforward and accessible. As noble as the film’s intentions may be to paint a comparison between white privilege and senseless racism, it doesn’t all fall into place neatly.
With those caveats in mind, approach Suburbicon with slight trepidation and measured patience. You might find yourself pulled out of it too early by the time it all ends, or you could be ready to jet for home after the first reel. Either way you split it, Suburbicon is an acquired taste with equal odds of hitting your sweet spot.