Before (and even shortly after) its premiere at Venice and Toronto, Suburbicon was one of those movies that was an immediate shoe-in for Oscars consideration. With a Coen Brothers script, their long-time creative partner George Clooney at the helm, and mega-stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in front of the screen, it seemed like a pretty easy path to Oscars gold. But yeah, uh, this movie is pretty bad.
Suburbicon plops us into a fictional 1950s suburban town of cookie-cutter houses, immaculate lawns, and perpetually cheerful neighbors. Immediately, the story splits to focus on two neighboring houses. In one, we find Gardner Lodge (Damon), his solemn and wheelchair-bound wife (Moore), her twin sister Margaret (also Moore!), and his wide-eyed son Nicky (Noah Jupe). That’s right, we get two Julianne Moores! More Moore! She delivers two very different performances: one quiet and bitter, the other chirpy and fragile. She gets sidelined once the family reckons with a violent home invasion, at the hands of perhaps the most infectious characters in this movie: a highly cartoonish hitman duo (played by Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) ripped straight from the Coens earlier (and better) works. Like Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in Fargo, these guys are menacing by their physical presence alone. It’s with them where Clooney seems to be having the most fun directing, imbuing them with a kind of greasy, pulpy vibe. It’s a shame they’re also sidelined for more time with bumbling-yet-sinister Matt Damon and William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard. Are you a Matt Damon fan? I’m not. And this movie didn’t do anything to impress on that front.
What we get here is a perfectly okay, straightforward noir-ish murder mystery. Clooney accentuates the more violent of scenes with a Hitchcockian score and visual motifs, but the music (by Alexandre Desplat) in the rest of the film often times falls back on generic tweeness and sentimentality, making these other scenes feel stale, overlong, and saccharine. It’s not really this storyline that makes this movie a mess however; it’s the inclusion of a parallel story that makes this whole endeavor baffling, even embarrassing.
See, interspersed into this narrative, in about five minute increments or so, is the story of the non-fictional Meyers: living right next door to the Lodges, they’re the first black family (with a son about the same age as Nicky) to move into the neighborhood. Disapproving looks and whispers abound; raucous town halls are held; actual news footage is played of little white grandmothers lamenting integration with comments like, “This town was perfectly normal until they moved here”, and the simmering tensions blow up into full-fledged attack from a mob of racist townsfolk. The two stories sort of intersect later when this attack is used as a cover-up for the consequences of the home invasion, but it always feels like a stretch.
Now here’s the thing about this other family. It’s a narrative out of a completely different movie. It bears no resemblance tonally to the home invasion plotline; gone are the colorful characters, the Coen’s brand of black comedy, the stylized direction. If I were to guess, the blame falls on Clooney. The rest of the movie feels so undeniably Coens that this inclusion feels utterly wrong. Clooney, who has a co-writing credit on this film and whose activist work might have compelled him to make a social statement (as he so often does), might have felt the need to put that story in — perhaps for him to acknowledge that this script is very white, and that just next door there’s a much more important story being told that makes this one look trivial. Too bad the Coens couldn’t muster up any speaking parts for these characters. Instead we get Mr. and Mrs. Meyers quietly embracing in the living room as a growing mob of their white nieghbors lay siege outside. These aren’t characters as much as placeholders, all they represent is Blackness. What’s Clooney trying to say here? Yes, we get it; white people have historically blamed all their ills on black people. White privilege allows people to turn a blind eye on their own evils. Clooney is certainly trying to say that the America in “Make American Great Again” was never great to begin with; that the nostalgic vision that Trumpland concocted was always covering up a deeper darker history of exclusion, xenophobia, and bigotry. But did we really need that history lesson? I mean, is that all?
It’s very easy, in a “period piece”, to contemporize your point of view. It’s very easy to look back and say, “We used to be assholes and now we should know better”. Though some of the Coens Brothers’ works do tend to talk down to their characters, it’s made a lot more obvious with the half-hearted inclusion of this parallel narrative on race relations. If Clooney is attempting to comment on the populist rewriting of history, he’s doing it himself here by shoddily sketching out a town of white racists and a black family who is present but mute. The Meyers are made to suffer silently throughout this whole ordeal, it’s as if giving them a few lines might be too much for these white writers to tackle, lest they take on full-bodied personalities with personal flaws and fears. There is so much wrong here that it not only leaves you questioning Clooney’s own personal political point of view, but it also begs: Do the Coens know how to write the perspective of someone who isn’t white? And, do they even care to?
The film does have some indelible images; Moore using a rolling pin to crush up a poisonous amount of pharmaceuticals, Damon riding a child’s bike as he attempts to flee from the blazing carnage he created. Oscar Isaacs comes in at some point and he’s fun to watch. But you’ve already seen all of that from the trailer, which I’d argue is better than the movie itself. The setting should have been enough. There’s already enough darkness bubbling behind those white picket fences that could have been excavated for a fresh Coen Brothers movie. I really wouldn’t have minded a Fargo in the suburbs, but this really marks another case of misguided good intentions for Clooney. His last directorial effort, Monument’s Men, was another schmaltzy case of patronizing the audience; in that movie, he attempted to teach us that works of art have political merit. Got it. The way this man can both finger-wag while simultaneously patting himself on the back is astonishing. But oh he’s so handsome.