Suburbicon finds frequent Coen Brothers collaborator George Clooney doing his best impersonation of the filmmaking siblings. Actually, I hope it’s not his best impersonation or we’ve got problems. Behind the camera, Clooney so obviously apes his pals that his film has no personality of its own.
On the surface, he hits all the quirks and affectations of a Coen Brothers movies, thanks in large part to the fact they wrote the script. And the cast Clooney assembled resembles a Coen Brothers stock company. But the the film lacks their charm and deft ability to balance disparate tones. The result is a gaudy mess that so left me wondering what’s the fucking point?
To be fair, Suburbicon looks fantastic. Clooney has the good sense to enlist the services of cinematographer Robert Elswit, who lensed most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, along with a metric ton of other fabulous looking films. And the set design of the pristine, idyllic, planned 1950s suburban sprawl location is spot on throughout. It’s a lovely film to gaze at, but that’s the only positive note I can find.
Everything is hunky dory in Suburbicon, a haven of white flight Americana. It’s all peachy keen. That is until a couple of goons break in to the home of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), kill his wheelchair-bound wife (Julianne Moore), and terrorize his son, Nicky (Noah Jupe). This vicious attack throws the whole community into upheaval. Margaret, the wife’s sister, also played by Julianne Moore, moves in, and the family must deal with this tragedy. There is, of course, much more than we see on the surface.
The problem with Suburbicon is that it’s tedious. It’s so bland and drab it’ll have you checking your watch hoping it will end soon. Presented as a mystery, there’s no mystery. The script spells everything out early on. The narrative works best from Nicky’s point of view, as the child picks up on clues and unravels the truth for himself. Unfortunately, that information has already been revealed—the audience already knows the answers, so it all adds up to naught, even before Nicky largely disappears from the movie. Eventually, the story shifts course and becomes about Gardner and Margaret in over their heads with cops, bookies, the mob, and ill-planned schemes.
This is vintage Coen turf from Raising Arizona all the way to No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading. But maybe there’s a reason this script hasn’t been made since 1986—and it still doesn’t actually feel finished. Written right after Blood Simple, the inherent violence lines up more with that film or Miller’s Crossing in their body of work, though Fargo presents the easiest comparison. That movie weaves in darkness and brutality with their particular blend of idiosyncrasies and foibles. I don’t know if it’s Clooney or the script, but Suburbicon stumbles over similar traits, and the trademark quirks watch like forced imitation rather than eccentric peculiarities as the movie bumbles through one contrived scene after another.
Matt Damon does what he can, but he’s more an archetype Coen Brothers milquetoast than an actual character, with his JFK conspiracy theorist glasses and starched-white button-up shirts. The movie wastes Julianne Moore with empty, vapid smiles and crocodile tears, which aims to lampoon gender constraints of the era, but in reality there isn’t anything more than what appears on the surface. Glenn Fleshler plays the old-timey heavy well enough, but we’ve seen it before.
When he shows up, Oscar Isaac steals the show as a slick, sleazy insurance agent. Is there any other kind in movies? His presence is short-lived, but he absolutely hijacks his handful of scenes in what feels like a stand-in role for Clooney—it’s not difficult to envision a younger version of the director stepping into this fast-talking role.
But again, all of this amounts to nil. Suburbicon tries to be both Sirk-ian domestic melodrama and Hitchcock-style suspense, only to fail on both fronts. Alexandre Desplat’s score does its best to enhance these attempts, but there’s not enough substance to back it up. Just because the music tells you a scene is tense, doesn’t make it so.
And then there’s the most tone deaf move of the entire movie, the crazy racism. Suburbicon opens with an African American family, the Meyers, moving to the neighborhood, which enrages the white folks who moved there precisely to get away from “those people.” The movie interjects, awkwardly and often, the townsfolk tormenting and terrorizing the newcomers in ways that look uncomfortably like reenactments of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Sure, there are stares and whispers, but also scenes of torch-wielding, Confederate flag-waving “fine people” surrounding their home.
I get the whole point of this; it’s not exactly subtle. While all these fine upstanding citizens are up in arms about a mild-mannered black family destroying their lily white suburb, the literal next house over hides murder, lust, greed, extortion, corruption, and all the other vices this rabid mob blames on the new family. We get it, there’s an ugly undercurrent in even the most externally perfect suburban setting. Its heart may be in the right place, but the execution is ham-fisted and becomes the biggest tonal misstep in a movie that’s a complete tonal mess. More than anything, this thread feels like Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov, who also took a whack at the script, trying to inject contemporary social commentary. But it’s misguided, distracts from the surrounding film, and, like the rest of the movie, face plants immediately—from the very first scene.
Suburbicon wants to be a witty satire of suburban living, a commentary on race relations in America, and a tense murder mystery. It fails on all accounts. A toothless, tedious disappointment from George Clooney, the film ends up a pointless mess that’s best avoided. [Grade: D+]