5 out of 10
Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge
Directed by George Clooney
Suburbicon Review by:
What in God’s name is this movie about? Is it about a man plotting the murder of his wife so that he can marry her identical twin? Is it about a boy realizing how dark and depraved the world can be when he discovers the plot? Is it about the horror that an African American family goes through attempting to move into a classical all-white ’50s suburb? Is it about how dark and depraved middle-class life can be beneath its rosy exterior? Or is it about all of those things, resulting in a bland mélange spoilt by too many cooks in the kitchen?
The screenplay, begun many years earlier by the Coen Brothers, is suitably Coens Brother-esque. Quietly desperate Gardner Lodge (Damon) wants to run away from his problems, mainly his wife and son, and use her insurance money to fund the life he feels he always should have had. The only thing standing in his way are a vile insurance investigator (Isaac) and the moronic hitmen he hired who still haven’t been paid for their work. And occasionally, and for not particular reason, it’s about an African American family being tormented by its white neighbors.
Even if you didn’t know, five minutes in, Suburbicon’s Coen Bros. shine through, most tellingly in its biting criticism of the will to power. Only the most corrupt individuals – the philandering husbands, the hitmen, the insurance investigator – attempt to take control of their lives because in the Suburbicon world, only evil is arrogant enough to think that it can. By comparison, the individuals who don’t understand what is going on or don’t respond to it are the only truly good people; grace has been redefined as the lack of action. It’s a point of view director George Clooney has only occasionally embraced, and usually when working with the Coens, which makes its infrastructure all the more clear.
Not that Clooney has gone to any lengths to hide his influences; nor is it the first time he’s been bitten by this bug. From a long distance squint, Leatherheads has some kinship with the Coens’ paean’s to ’30s screwball comedy, and The Men Who Stare at Goats certainly owes something to their strange blend of cynicism and faith, and immense skepticism of institutions. [I still can’t explain The Monuments Men though]. There’s nothing wrong with that; all artists are fueled by their influences to one degree or another. And a pair of the best directors of the gothic and grotesque in American cinema are good influences to have, especially if you want to chronicle similar ideas.
For all the razzing, I do need to say I think Clooney is a good director. You only need to watch Good Night, And Good Luck (and to a lesser degree Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) to understand that. And his strengths are on view here, from deviant-Rockwell compositions to Suburbicon’s studied tone and well-developed scenes, Clooney’s chops are on full display. There is maybe a little too much fetishizing of his period look and surroundings (something period pieces all but invite), but his cast is first rate especially young Jupe, who has to carry the film’s awfulness with a realistic fear. Yes, much of the cast has been selected from a Coen sense of the grotesque, but once again, there’s nothing wrong with that.
But even the best of directors can’t succeed without a good script to work from and the patch job on Suburbicon, whatever its initial merits may have been, is so blatant and badly handled that it ruins whatever good might be hidden within. Far, far within. Clooney wants to comment on the repressed nature of the class and period and what it says about that group’s descendants living today. But he doesn’t want it to be screed, so he ladles in a darkly comic mystery plot. And just in case that wasn’t enough, he throws in some racial commentary to the mix. One of these elements by themselves would have been strong enough to make a feature from, but together they are very much less than the sum of their parts. Especially when it turns its focus to the next door neighbors and the growing crowds trying to force them to move.
It’s not so much that the idea is bad (it’s actually not), it’s the fact that Clooney doesn’t have a good idea how to integrate into the existing murder mystery plot. For whatever it adds to Suburbicon’s thematic depth, it takes away from the tone and pace. The characters don’t talk to one another for the most part and even the noise is cancelled out whenever we delve into Gardner’s house so that we can focus on Damon. In trying to point out the hypocrisy of race baiters, Clooney has joined them buy using a black family as a probably unintentional prop.
The sad thing is Clooney the director is better than this and can be again. Let’s just hope that next time he picks some better material.