Working from a script originated by Joel and Ethan Coen, George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” is a surprisingly big misfire. With the Coens attached to this project, I would have presumed some dark comedy, but Clooney ventures into the macabre, as what could (and should) have been a relatively simple story of a suburban father’s unfortunately involvement with the mob turns into a bloodier and more bleak product than necessary.
The first story
Matt Damon stars as Gardner Lodge (as if the fact that living in a suburb didn’t solidify his socio-economic status well enough), a seemingly happily-married man with a loving and supportive wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and young son Nicky (newcomer Noah Jupe). When two thugs mysteriously show up one night and kill Rose, her twin sister Margaret decides to temporarily move in with Gardner and his son to help ease the transition. There’s never an easy way to alleviate the sting of losing a mother and spouse, nor am I suggesting Clooney should have papered over its gravity, but plenty enough screen time is devoted to Gardner’s and Nicky’s readjustment. We’re left feeling overly melancholy before the real action begins – and that’s not only unnecessary, but unfunny (if “Suburbicon” is, in fact, supposed to be a dark comedy). I would have preferred the screenplay (completed by Clooney and Grant Heslov) begin sometime after Rose’s death. The horror Nicky experiences the night of the break-in permeates the rest of the film like the smell of a campfire long after the embers have exhausted themselves.
We eventually learn that these were no random hoodlums. Apparently Gardner borrowed money from them to start his own (ostensibly successful) business, but has not returned it in kind. And so the set-up of “Suburbicon” is established. The crime caper that follows is not uninteresting, but the presence of Nicky in almost every scene eventually causes us to cringe, as we being to see all the action through his eyes. My guess is that the Coens would have simply eliminated his character had they also served as directors.
One interesting character
Only once is an intriguing character introduced, and that is Oscar Isaac as a claims adjuster who shows up one day to question Margaret about recent changes in Gardner’s life insurance policy. Isaac’s motives are unknown at first, and he plays his character slyly enough that we’re not quite sure of his angle. The suspense is not necessarily great, but it provides a necessary jolt absent in the remainder of the screenplay.
Two factors essentially ruin whatever momentum “Suburbicon” develops in the early going. First, Margaret dyes her hair to look like Rose. Since these women are identical twins, their characters are both played by Julianne Moore. As Margaret initiates her transformation, we wonder if we’re seeing Rose in a flashback or Margaret in present time. Furthermore, we’re never certain why this metamorphosis occurs in the first place. Is it at Gardner’s behest? Is it for Nicky’s benefit. There must be an important scene or two on Clooney’s cutting-room floor.
The other plot
But the real kicker is the African-American family who moves in behind the Lodge residence. Now we all know there were few black families in 1959 suburbia. But there were some, and their inclusion shouldn’t come as a shock – either to us (watching in 2017) or their neighbors (in 1959). But the neighborhood’s collective reaction is like something out of an old science fiction film. First they complain amongst themselves about declining property values (a likely response in 1959). Then the immediate neighbors erect fences between their properties and that of the black family – a bit severe, but at least somewhat believable. Eventually, a throng of white neighbors (with apparently nothing better to do) is banging drums and tooting horns in hopes of driving the family away. The black family apparently doesn’t realize they can summon the police.
If this isn’t farfetched enough, what follows is inexcusable. One night the white neighbors incite a riot – complete with homemade bombs and firearms. This is serious! And this is supposed to be California – not the deep South. It’s overkill on a scale rarely seen in a Hollywood production, and it’s a shame. What we see of the Lodge’s neighbors early on is that they are typical suburban residents; but they become monsters. While my grandfathers had some beliefs that might be considered racist today, neither of them would have condoned such activity.
Two stories never mix
The two stories are never intertwined until Gardner is seen dragging a recently murdered body out of the street so the fire trucks won’t have to drive over it to reach the burning African-American house. I guess the point is that sometimes we’re so wrapped up in something that could only be described as a non-crime that we miss the true crime occurring right under our noses. If I’m correct, that’s not a point that needs to be made through a racist lens; in fact, it would have been made more effectively in a different setting. If Clooney’s goal was to make a statement about institutional racism in the 1950s, he has failed miserably.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appear on http://youarecurrent.com/category/nightandday/
and he serves as a film historian for http://www.thefilmyap.com/