Release Date: October 27, 2017
Director: George Clooney
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 105 minutes
As we inch ever closer to the centenary of when the suburbs were first established and sold off in a postwar America as an idealized, designed and beguiling slice of the “American dream,” we remain optimistic that, once and for all, we can be finished with exposing the seedy underbelly of supposed domestic paradise.
To say that suburbia may not be what it seems in the present day – well after the likes of David Lynch, Sam Mendes, Peter Weir, Gary Ross and many more have all dug up their respective dirt from the well manicured lawns of Anytown, USA – would be cute if the exercise wasn’t so redundant and labored.
Take George Clooney’s Suburbicon, an essentially gifted script from the Coens, which carries their look but none of their distinct flavor, as the latest wallop to the dead horse of suburbia exposé, which – despite the talent amassed – manages to be a toothless and airless crime comedy with little to no direction to speak of. Spread as thin as it is, Suburbicon manages to raise little criticism and instead gets lost among its mess of a plot, struggling to find a method to its own brand of madness.
From the pointed opening there are occasional hints at something resonating from the secondhand Coen script that, rare as they are, inform us that a decent film was here once upon a time. As the TV narrator leafs through a Norman Rockwell storybook revelling at the diversity of Suburbicon’s residents (“From Mississippi to New York to Ohio!”), we turn onto the idyllic neighborhood of the Lodge family, where a black family – the Mayers – is being welcomed with the enthusiasm you’d expect from 1950s America.
While a town hall meeting rages about how to “deal” with the new residents with some obvious hindsight jokes, the Lodges’ home is broken into, the place ransacked, and the family terrorized. The fact that Clooney sets these narratives, the Lodges’ criminal predicament and the town’s growing racial animus, to run congruent to one another is one of Suburbicon’s more baffling and damning missteps as it’s surprisingly lacking in reason.
Was the point to demonstrate how, when we as a society are consumed with ignorant, needless hatred for the marginalized, we fail to see the real outrage of murder and insurance fraud happening in plain sight next door? Possibly, but with the manner in which Suburbicon tells these tales, whatever moral there is never reaches a point of salience befitting the issues Clooney wants to tackle.
Especially considering how scant in detail these stories are (with none of the black Mayer family members receiving a first name and the specifics of the criminal network Lodge gets embroiled in go unseen), it’s unsurprising how little impact they leave. Characters feel arbitrarily drawn; shifts in tone come out of nowhere; and the pairing of the true crime blunders with a full blown race riot point to near-sighted directing on Clooney’s part – with possible blame sharing owed to the Coens’ 30-year-old script, which may be long past its expiration date.
The saving grace for this rather boring film are the performances – which, with credit due to Clooney I suppose – work with what they have and make something out of it. Matt Damon and Julianne Moore exude this sadistic need to maintain the status quo at any cost necessary, making an excellent centrepiece to the film. Coupled with that is a scene-stealing Oscar Isaac, who feels like he walked out of the good version of Suburbicon (under the Coens’ direction from 30 years earlier) in a performance that’s loaded with small moments of personality that build through the best scene in the whole film by far. The characters might be written without an edge, but the cast tries as hard as they can and, at the right moments, it shows.
But Suburbicon was never a good performance away from being salvageable, as its problems are imbued in the film’s very genesis. Why the Coens or Clooney could possibly care about suburbia enough to tackle it in such a way is beyond me, but what it resulted in is a film whose clear incompetence betrays its haphazard sense of self-importance. It’s a confused mess that never really goes far enough along the path it carved to warrant anything other than a passing interest that can never hold your attention for too long.