Suburbicon has been in development since 1986, when Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the original script, but it has only now made it to the big screen thanks to the efforts of director (and frequent Coens collaborator) George Clooney. With talented people on both sides of the cameras and writers known for their dark sense of humor, the hope going into the film was that it could operate as a piece of biting satire, poking holes in the old fashioned “American dream” in entertaining and thought-provoking fashion. While all the pieces were in place for something special, the end result is a massive misfire on all fronts. Suburbicon is a confused mishmash of a movie that attempts to blend two different storylines and fails to fully develop either in an engaging fashion.
Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) lives with his wife Rose, sister-in-law Margaret (twins played by Julianne Moore), and son Nicky (Noah Jupe) in the utopia known as Suburbicon, a peaceful town where people from all over America come to improve their lifestyles. Tensions become high when the neighborhood’s first African-American family, the Mayers, moves in, causing the all-white residents to protest the invasion of their safe space. Meanwhile, Gardner has even bigger problems when two career criminals break into his home and kill Rose as punishment for failing to pay the mob back for a loan.
As the police investigate the homicide, Gardner attempts to pick up the pieces of his broken life with Margaret and Nicky by his side. However, the men who murdered Rose remain hot on his tail, looking to collect what’s rightfully theirs. Gardner plots an escape from the insanity that has engulfed him, hoping to move far away quickly before his past catches up to him and only makes matters worse.
Suburbicon most definitely lends credence to the notion that only the Coen brothers can effectively direct Coen brother scripts (Clooney and Grant Heslov also received writing credit following their revisions). Known more for straightforward dramas like Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March, Clooney is a bit out of his element as a helmsman here, struggling to capture the right tone and strike the proper balance between the story’s comedic and dramatic elements. He lacks the directorial nuance of the Coen brothers, and what could have been a Big Lebowski-esque farce is simply messy in its execution, as Suburbicon never demands the attention of the audience. It meanders towards its conclusion, playing as a boring and dull experience for the most part.
The script is an oddity in itself, presenting viewers with two parallel storylines that never intertwine in a meaningful way. It cuts back and forth between a classic Coen brothers organized crime narrative (with Gardner knee-deep in the mob) and a downright bizarre racism angle where the people of Suburbicon constantly harass and disturb the Mayers due to the color of their skin. The film tries to bite off more than it can chew, and doesn’t give any of its plot threads the full attention needed to make them click. Everything is very surface level, rarely (if ever) digging deeper to provide viewers with some compelling substance. There’s also a jarring disconnect between the dual narratives; the crime aspect is meant to be seen through the lens of a Fargo, where there’s amusement to be found in watching everyday people get in over their heads, and the racial commentary (which is meant to inject simmering anger) does not jive with that kind of approach. As a result, the movie is tonally inconsistent and never figures out what it wants to be.
As the leads, Damon and Moore are reliable as they always are, they’re just shortchanged by an uninspired script that gives them little to work with. The screenplay never fully explores their characters, making Gardner and Margaret come across as uninteresting and unlikable people with unclear motivations. Suburbicon does have its fair share of sympathetic and relatable characters, but there likewise isn’t much there as well. What the Mayers go through is terrible, but those sequences feel cold because no characterization is given to that family. Child actor Jupe is perhaps the strongest of the main cast because of his natural reactions to the absurdity around him, but even he is fairly thin at the end of the day. Again, nobody gives what can be told a bad turn here – for better or worse, everyone does what the script calls for.
Since Suburbicon mainly focuses on the Lodges, the supporting cast is quite small, but Oscar Isaac undoubtedly steals the show as insurance claims investigator Bud Cooper. The actor lights up the screen with his natural charm and charisma, making the film better with his mere presence and verbal sparring skills. He maximizes his extremely limited screen time with panache, and he’ll likely be many people’s favorite. Sadly, he can’t rescue the movie from collapsing, but Isaac is certainly a bright spot in an otherwise rambling affair. Other players like Gary Basarabra and Corey Allen Kotler round out the cast – and while they’re good, they barely make an impression by the time the credits roll.
Suburbicon will sadly join the ranks of Clooney’s previous misstep, The Monuments Men, as a film that wastes its on-paper potential with a jumbled narrative that never runs with any of its ideas. If the Coens were the ones calling the shots, things might have turned out differently. As it stands, cinephiles can afford to skip this one in theaters, seeing that it isn’t much of a player on the awards circuit and there are more captivating films on the horizon. Die-hard fans of the filmmakers and cast may be inclined to check it out, but there’s little to recommend.
Suburbicon is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 104 minutes and is rated R for violence, language, and some sexuality.
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