Earlier this year I came across a trailer for the new film from George Clooney, and the movie we’ll be discussing today, Suburbicon. I hadn’t really heard anything about it, so when I watched the trailer I was going in blind. And I was intrigued. It looked like a twisted little black comedy set in a satirically idealized 1950’s. And while watching the trailer I couldn’t help but feel like Clooney had really picked up a thing or two from his long time collaborators, the Coen Brothers. Which made perfect sense when at the end of the trailer we got a card saying that the Coen’s were partially responsible for the script. Which was exciting news. Overall I’ve enjoyed Clooney’s directorial work, especially Good Night, and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and the Coen Brothers are two of my favorite living filmmakers. So this seemed like a pretty sure-bet. Yeah, other people adapting the Coen’s work hasn’t always had the greatest success-rate, but Bridge of Spies was very good, so I figured that there was a pretty good chance that Suburbicon would have been something special. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case this time. Because something went wrong with this film, and it just became a whole lot of spoiled potential.
The film takes place in the isolated enclave of Suburbicon. It’s a perfectly peaceful little community of racist white folks, until something happens to shatter that perfection. Well, I guess two things. First, a black family moves into the neighborhood, much to the fury of most of the neighbors. But that honestly has almost nothing to do with the film. What does matter is the brutal home invasion of the Lodge family. Two criminals enter the home of Gardner and Rose Lodge, their son Nicky, and Rose’s sister Margaret. They intimidate the family, and then drug them. The only problem is, they used too much chloroform on Rose, and she ends up dying. The family tries to move on, burying Rose and attempting to remain normal. Margaret moves into the house with them, and slowly starts to take Rose’s place. Literally. She dyes her hair to match Rose, and even starts having a sexual relationship with Gardner, which Nicky starts to notice. But he doesn’t know what to do about all of this, other than occasionally complain to his uncle Mitch. And, slowly, they start to get used to this new life, and start to move on.
The only thing is, this wasn’t a tragic accident. It was on purpose. Gardner and Margaret have apparently been having an affair, and they concocted a plan to have these two men come in, stage a robbery, and kill Rose so they can cash in her life insurance policy. There’s only one problem. The police actually start investigating the case, and bring them all in to look at a lineup, which is when Nicky notices Gardner and Margaret ignoring the two men who clearly committed the murder. The two men get out jail, but they think that Gardner is going to let Nicky spoil everything, and turn them in. And it’s not just them. Because they suddenly get visited by a man named Bud Cooper from the insurance agency. He can tell that this case is fishy, and gets Margaret to all but confess that they killed Rose. He then plans to return to the house and put pressure on Lodge. Which is when everything falls apart. That night the neighbors finally can’t take it anymore and start rioting outside the black family’s house, and under that smoke-screen the Lodge’s house explodes. Cooper arrives and demands to be given the money from the policy in exchange for not turning them in, which earns him a mouthful of lye from Margaret, and a killing blow to the head from Lodge. Gardner then removes Cooper’s corpse while Margaret prepares a poisoned sandwich for Nicky in case they need to remove their final witness and run off together. However, the criminals who killed Rose see Lodge leaving, and decide they need to put some pressure on Lodge to pay them. So one of them goes into the house to strangle Margaret while the other goes to intimidate Gardner. That man ends up dying in a car accident, but the other man does succeed in killing Margaret. He almost kills Nicky too, only to be killed by Uncle Mitch who showed up after Nicky calls him in fear. Mitch and the killer end up killing each other, leaving us just Nicky and Gardner. The two have a talk, and Gardner threatens to kill his own son if he doesn’t play ball with the whole event. However, he also accidentally eats the poisoned sandwich, leaving Nicky the sole survivor.
This film is a bit of a mess. It’s trying to accomplish a whole lot, and doesn’t seem overly qualified to do any of it. I honestly can’t tell you whose story this film is. It seems like Gardner Lodge should be our protagonist, even as his motivations and actions become more and more despicable. But there are whole stretches of the film that revolve specifically around Nicky and his quest to get to the bottom of what happened to his mother. There’s also the act that the film keeps checking back in on the black family and the neighbor’s torment, as if they have anything to do with the plot. This family seemed to only be included in the film to serve as some sort of balance to the Lodge’s, showing us that the neighbors are so concerned about the black family while the Lodge’s are the true source of chaos. But that would have been made more interesting if they’d been characters, and not window dressing. Honestly, a lot of the film feels like window dressing. No one is overly defined, and it really feels like we’re kept at a distance from everyone’s motivations. Matt Damon puts in a very bored performance, getting some funny moments occasionally but mostly just drifting around. Julianne Moore is pretty fun as the dual roles of Rose and Margaret, but she’s stuck being a caricature of a 50’s housewife, which makes this the second role of hers this year that’s little more than a pastiche. The kid who plays Nicky wasn’t bad I suppose. And Oscar Isaac, though barely in this film, was great as usual, and made me long for him to star in Coen Brother’s numbskull comedy.
And that’s the really my main takeaway with this film. I wish it had been done better by the Coen Brothers. Apparently this was a script that they’d written way back around the Blood Simple years, and never got off the ground. And I can kind of tell why. This doesn’t feel like a polished film. It wants to be a black comedy, but it isn’t really consistently funny. It wants to be a satire of the idea that the fifties were a perfect time while actually being a segregated and tumultuous era, but never focuses on those aspects. It suggests the idea of racial inequality, but does nothing with it. Some parts of the film get cartoony, and have fun and goofy performances. Other parts get incredibly dour and people play it too straight. It’s strange, because Clooney has succeeded with this type of twisted comedy before, and his numerous collaborations with the Coen Brothers would make you think that something would have worn off on him. But apparently not. The films seems like it wants to be a hybrid of the complicated noir of Double Indemnity and the social commentary of Pleasantville, but it succeeds in neither aspect.
Suburbicon was written by Joel & Ethan Coen and George Clooney & Grant Heslov, directed by George Clooney, and released by Paramount Pictures, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk