Suburbicon (2017)

10/30/2017  By  Joseph Wade     No comments

What the hell happened to George Clooney, Hollywood director?

His first two turns behind the camera — Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck — are remarkably confident pieces of work. After that, though, the wheels came off and he seemed to treat the job as a lark; a hobby in between Oscar-caliber acting gigs. This isn’t merely a misfire from director Clooney and the Coen Bros, dusting off a screenplay they wrote thirty years ago. No, this is a tone deaf meltdown masquerading as pointed social satire. If this movie is some kind of joke, no one is laughing. On the other hand, if they’re serious, then some heads need to be excavated from asses.

Suburbicon is your quintessential American suburb, located in Anytown, USA circa 1959. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is your typical buttoned-up businessman who finds himself in deep with the mob. One night, two thugs come to Lodge’s home, tie up his family and accidentally kill his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore). Her twin sister, Margaret (Moore again), moves in to give Gardner’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe) a sense of structure. Or at least, that’s what seems to be going on. Nicky quietly observes as his father and aunt plan a trip to Aruba with the insurance money from his mother’s death, which raises some red flags with a nosy claims adjuster (a wonderfully arch Oscar Isaac).

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I like to imagine he’s playing Llewyn Davis’ twin brother, Elwyn Davis.

As the Lodge family drama spirals out of control, the neighbors gather next door to protest the Mayers, a black family that’s just moved to town. Over the course of the film the protests become more and more aggressive until things take a violent, explosive turn. Suburbicon constantly shows us how awful the town is to the Mayers, but never seems to tip its hand as to how it wants us to feel about that. The behavior is obviously terrible, but there’s no comeuppance or moment of clarity to cut through the bitter racism. The only glimmer of hope comes as Nicky strikes up a friendship with young Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa). At one point a white protester smashes the Mayers’ living room window and drapes a Confederate flag over it. More than anything, this side-plot feels like a stark reminder that some things never change.

For reasons I still can’t fathom, Suburbicon attempts to conflate this story with the Lodges’. The Mayers don’t serve much purpose in this film other than to ratchet up the tension among Gardner and his family. It’s an awkward surrogate, and the film never seems to know what to do with it once the connection is made. Gardner isn’t painted as any sort of racist, but he disapproves of the disruption that the Mayers have caused among the community. Maybe that’s the point, that the accepted order of the 1950s was inherently toxic, and the only way for the baby boomers to rebel was to accept change? Is that what this is? Self-affirming boomer nostalgia? It’s a bit of a stretch, considering Nicky is barely even a presence in the film.

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Sorry, Andy, unfortunately this ain’t your movie.

The real story here is Gardner’s dealings with the mob, which are tenuous at best, as the film asks us to assume much of what transpires. Little in the way of plot is ever actually confirmed, like there’s some kind of mystery at work that the film doesn’t want us to guess until it’s ready. The two thugs (Alex Haskell, Glenn Fleshler) who kill Rose and threaten to return for Nicky, are the only mob connections we get, but they make for a pair of fun, twisted villains. They’re the human cartoon equivalent of 50s henchmen. One thing this film excels at, like the Coen films it’s trying to so hard to emulate, is finding the odd face in the crowd and elevating them to a work of grotesque modern art.

This, unfortunately, is where Suburbicon’s positives begin and end. It nails the tactile look and feel of a Coen Bros. farce, but never achieves the wacky fever pitch or stark nihilism of Joel & Ethan’s best work. Clooney captures the ancillary details perfectly, but can’t seem to decide which story should take precedent. He torpedoes both the black comedy he’s aiming for and the noirish melodrama it rubs up against. Suburbicon walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, but deep in your heart you know that this is no duck. This is an impostor duck.

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Speaking of impostors, Moore’s character spends half the movie masquerading as her twin sister.

Perhaps the movie is trying to satirize the oppressive, tightly-wound atmosphere of the 1950s, but in doing so the movie strangles itself to death. Relevant information slips out by accident, as though it were afraid of revealing too much. Is it a social satire mocking the casual racism of the era? Is it a serious film about a father’s attempts to save/destroy his own family? Or could it be both of these things? I’m tempted to lean that direction, because that’s the only way any of it even makes sense. The next question to ask is: Why? Neither of these stories work together, and one feeds off the bad vibes of the other in such an exploitative manner that it poisons the whole enterprise.

Nothing about Suburbicon connects, and extrapolating its meaning in a larger, metaphorical sense is a recipe for a nosebleed. The comedy never flies off the rails like one might expect, nor does the film make any grander point with its displays of racial strife. It’s just a depressing slog through 50s nostalgia for its own sake. Why does anyone want to go back to this? Not even George Clooney seems to know.

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About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.

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