Possibly the most important thing to know about Suburbicon, the new film directed by George Clooney from a script co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, is that it is almost certainly not the movie you walk into the theater expecting to see.
The sixth film to be directed by Clooney (who has had a film he directed hit theaters every three years since 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Suburbicon casts Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge, an unassuming company man whose peaceful life in the idyllic community of Suburbicon is thrown into chaos after a deadly home invasion. The film juxtaposes the increasingly more dangerous predicament that Gardner finds himself in over time with the growing unrest in the community caused by the arrival of an African-American family in the lily-white neighborhood.
Part dark comedy, part racial drama, part crime caper, and part social satire, Suburbicondoesn’t shy away from juggling some complicated themes, but the pedigree of the film’s creative team — and its award-winning cast — makes it surprising to see the film go off-course.
Along with the Oscar-winning Coen brothers, the screenplay for Suburbicon is also co-written by Clooney and his frequent collaborator, Grant Heslov (Good Night and Good Luck, The Ides of March). Damon is joined in the cast by Julianne Moore (Still Alice), who plays dual roles as both Rose Lodge (Gardner’s wife) and Margaret, Rose’s sister. Playing supporting roles in the film are Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina) as a clever claims investigator, Jack Conley (L.A. Confidential) as the local police chief, and Noah Jupe (The Night Manager) as Gardner’s young son, as well as Glenn Fleshler (True Detective) and Alex Hassell (Two Down) as a pair of criminals with their sights set on Gardner and his family.
To be fair, most of the films penned by the Coen brothers veer into unexpected territory — both tonally and narratively — and that’s generally been part of their appeal. Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and The Big Lebowski all meandered and occasionally felt like they lost their way, but the winding path they took always felt deliberate in the end.
That’s not the case with Suburbicon, which never feels committed to the story it wants to tell and never musters the sort of performances that justify the confusing, awkward set of half-told stories it does ends up spinning.
Damon’s portrayal of the family’s seemingly emotionless patriarch plays the role for comedy one moment and dramatic tension the next, but feels too tightly wound to deliver satisfyingly on either element. Audiences anticipating a film about a 1950s-era pencil-pusher forced to the brink by the forces conspiring around him (as the marketing for the film suggests) will likely be disappointed by the surprisingly dark, reserved character arc that Damon and the film’s script delivers. There’s little-to-no change in Damon’s character over the course of the film, which is particularly disappointing given his top billing and the focus of the film’s marketing.
Moore, on the other hand, manages to make her character more entertaining than she probably should be, given her poorly developed story and relatively few opportunities to steal the spotlight. Her spin on the ’50s housewife goes all in on the archetype and makes for some entertaining exchanges in the right company — particularly in the scenes she shares with Isaac’s smarmy claims investigator. Their characters ooze with a fantastically entertaining level of insincerity, and it’s a shame those scenes amount to so little of the film.
Jupe also provides a good performance as a child caught up in all of this madness, and essentially serves as the audience’s surrogate in observing the increasingly disturbing events that are causing his family’s life to crumble around him. His perspective adds an additional coming-of-age theme to the already overcrowded film, and it says a lot about Suburbicon that this young actor whose primary direction seems to involve acting acting shell-shocked ends up being the most emotionally relatable character in the film.
Beyond everything going on with Gardner and his family, Suburbicon also — and somewhat half-heartedly — chronicles the otherwise peaceful community’s increasingly violent efforts to rid themselves of the Mayerses, an African-American family who moved into their neighborhood.
The story follows this arc without much conviction, though, and the experience of the new family and the escalating racial aggression they face in this otherwise-idyllic community is frustratingly underdeveloped and under-related to the events unfolding around Gardner, despite the two families sharing a fence. It occasionally feels as if the film’s creative team added the Mayers story as an afterthought, and their scenes were simply pasted in as segues to add dramatic weight that Gardner’s story on its own doesn’t earn.
Given everything the Mayers family endures in the film, the second-class status their story is assigned ends up feeling like a tone-deaf decision on the part of the movie’s creative team, and whatever relationship between the two arcs was intended, it’s simply not executed well enough to justify the two narratives coexisting in the same film.
Despite all of those flaws, Suburbicon is an ambitious film, and to its credit, the intentions of the filmmakers and cast seem to be in the right place. In execution, however, the film falls frustratingly short of doing well by any of the themes it tries to address. Given the pedigrees and impressive accolades of everyone involved in the movie, it’s easy to set the bar high for Suburbicon, but even the creative team’s positive record with eccentric, unpredictable stories isn’t enough to excuse the film’s wide range of shortcomings.
Unfortunately, Suburbicon is a rare miss for an otherwise reliable group of filmmakers and actors.
This article was originally posted on Digital Trends
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