This review contains some some spoilers. Proceed at your own risk if you have not yet seen the film.
Suburbicon, George Clooney's sixth feature as a director, is an unrepentant, nasty bit of socially minded black comedy that bites off so much that it chokes while chewing on its own satire. Both a goofy neo-noir and a straight social-problem drama, it sends up the hypocrisies of Eisenhower-era cultural values via a macabre story about a crime-gone-wrong that turns into a vicious downward spiral for everyone involved. The screenplay, which was originally penned back in the 1980s by Joel and Ethan Coen and has since been reworked by Clooney and his regular collaborator Grant Heslov, attempts in various ways to bind the two halves of the movie together, but it feels wildly disjointed and out of tune. Clooney is a good director who has made some near-great films out of seemingly impossible material (the autobiography of Gong Show host Chuck Barris, for example, or the behind-the-scenes drama of the battle waged by journalist Edward R. Murrow against McCarthyism), but he never manages to get a handle on this one, churning out scenes that work individually, but never cohere with the material around them.
As the title suggests, the story is set within a fictional planned community called Suburbicon that embodies all of the most clichd traits of mid-'50s suburban enclaves in amusingly exaggerated ways: the neat rows of almost identical ranch houses, the neatly manicured yards, the shiny cars, the overly smiley postman who knows everyone, and the complete lack of non-Caucasian faces. The neighborhood's "unblemished" whiteness is challenged with the arrival of the Meyers, an African-American family whose presence is so disturbing to all the fearful whites that they are first left speechless, but eventually congeal into a sense of collective outrage that later morphs into a violent mob.
But that's not really what the film is about. It is-but not really. The main character, a middle-class, bespectacled office manager named Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), has virtually nothing to do with the opening subplot involving the Meyers, except that his house backs up to theirs and his preadolescent son Nicky (Noah Jupe) becomes friends with their son, which is important only insofar as it provides one dim glint of hope that humanity is not completely doomed. The main plot involves Gardner and his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore), who is killed early on during a home invasion by two leering brutes. This at first seems like a random tragedy (and the manner in which it happens feels truly random), but it is soon revealed that it was not only planned, but planned by Gardner himself so that he could collect Rose's life insurance payout and make off with her twin sister Margaret (also played by Moore).
Trouble begins almost from the start, as virtually every peripheral character poses some kind of existential threat to Gardner and Margaret's feeble plan. Nicky is smart and inquisitive, which means that it isn't long before he sees and hears things that make him doubt his father's account of what happened the night his mom died. The other characters are classic Coen oddballs and caricatures, from Gary Basaraba's beefy, outspoken Uncle Mitch, whose desire to help out is constantly spurned by Gardner, to Oscar Isaac's wily insurance investigator, who quickly and easily trips up the toothy, dim-witted Margaret while questioning her about her sister's death. All of the actors play the game well, but there isn't much depth here and little to go on aside from either playing directly to type (the long-suffering black family who holds their collective head high in the face of intransigent white racism) or against type (Damon's seemingly benign, but ultimately nefarious inversion of a Father Knows Best paterfamilias).
Unlike Billy Wilder's screwball-noir Double Indemnity (1944), a film to which Suburbicon clearly owes a significant debt, we don't see Gardner enter into the web of deceit that will eventually swallow him; rather, it is slowly revealed to us that he is already in it, which creates a much different effect: There is no sense of his becoming, just exposure of what he already is. The structure of Suburbicon seems almost willfully disorienting, not only in the initial disguising of Gardner's involvement in his wife's death, but in the seemingly random shifts back and forth between his noir-inspired story and the socially conscious depiction of the Meyers' struggling with racism both personal and institutional. Because Clooney is good at managing both absurdist comedy and straight drama, he handles both halves of the film well, but they feel fundamentally at odds, never so much as when Clooney is trying to show them to be flipsides of the same misanthropic coin. Suburbicon isn't a total loss, but it's hard to see it as much more than an interesting failure.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Paramount Pictures
Overall Rating: (2)
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