How exactly can one describe what Suburbicon is about? Is it a satire of the ideal “peaceful neighbourhood community” along the lines of Pleasantville? In some sense, but maybe you can also give Suburbicon the fitting name of Unpleasantville in the meantime. At the same time, it also happens to be a commentary on race relations in America, as they call themselves the “greatest nation on Earth.” But not until it is also a murder mystery about one family, and what it leaves on a mild-mannered man, his son, and the boy’s aunt. It’s easy to ask oneself how all of these three manage to tie up together with one another and the only way you can answer it is by saying that Suburbicon tries to be all three at once and ends up becoming a much bigger mess.
Scripted by the Coen brothers after the release of Blood Simple, Suburbicon was shelved until a frequent collaborator, George Clooney went ahead and decided to direct the unproduced script. Set within a deceptively peaceful American community known as “Suburbicon,” the mild-mannered Gardner Lodge finds himself caught up in a mob hit after his wife is murdered – scarring their young son Nicky Lodge, after having played together with a black neighbour and eventually befriending him. This whole environment isn’t a new concept, per se – but it’s easy enough to see that George Clooney has let out a feeling of anger. Anger at the ignorance of the white American citizen because of their promotion of diversity in an opening ad for Suburbicon (people from Mississippi and New York living together), but where does everything go from there?
I was trying to piece together the whole time what exactly was George Clooney intending to say with Suburbicon, because he seemed to have an idea that he wanted to make something angry from the way Suburbicon looked upon a black family entering an all-white community. But it’s quickly sidelined for another story about a mob hit, and the supposed political commentary just disappears off for a series of subplots that come and go, it seems hard enough to believe that this film was the result of an unproduced Coen brothers script. The film spends its running time even trying to decide what it wants to be, but because of the means in which everything is assembled into place, there is no clear idea. For a film whose intention was to make its viewers laugh with a dark sense of humour, it seems to border only towards brutally unpleasant it rarely ever feels like a comedy and for a commentary on race relations in America between white and black citizens, only one side seems to get the spotlight.
George Clooney does his very best to emulate what the style that the Coen brothers have worked around but it only gives the film a feeling of seeming rather dated. It seems dated because of the film’s own setting, right before the Civil Rights Movement and keeping the focus on the Caucasian American nuclear family rather than the African Americans, where a greater bite on social satire would be present. It all seems to be sidelined in favour of a murder plot that echoes Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, where Matt Damon’s mild-mannered office worker schemes to collect insurance funds from the death of his wife, Julianne Moore’s Rose – to run off with her twin sister Margaret. Moore seems fitting enough to carry the Barbara Stanwyck role but never does her motive seem believable. Then comes an always entertaining Oscar Isaac as a suspicious insurance worker who comes and goes after appearing only in two scenes. But if this is what Clooney is attempting to satirize about a family living within a conservative society, there’s so little clarity because it merely jumps everywhere with no subtlety.
As far as the film’s structure goes there seems to be no clear identity because it jumps between the Hitchcock-Wilder scheme and the story of a child who learns of the darkness of the “peaceful” neighbourhood he inhabits. Matt Damon doesn’t carry the same charm that Fred MacMurray would have been remembered for having in Double Indemnity, he’s just thoroughly unlikable and stays that way through the course of the film. Noah Jupe is quite good, because his character seems to be the only one that ever seems to grow. It’s a shame that his perspective is silenced through most of the film in favour of a number of subplots whether it be the mobsters wanting part of the insurance funds from murdering Rose Lodge, or what the Meyer family faces after moving into a community full of Caucasian Americans which comes and vanishes. I’m not saying that the film should be solely carried on someone’s shoulders, but there’s never a clear tone Suburbicon wants to establish for itself to stand out.
The fact that this was scripted by the Coen brothers seems to vanish completely because it feels only like an imitator of their own style. It doesn’t carry the same wit, nor does it ever feel created with the same insight and cleverness that their films would be remembered for. Suburbicon only seems derivative and never goes anywhere because it just feels like three movies that have been mashed into a blender and none of them mixed well. At the very least it looks nice, considering the fact that it was shot by Robert Elswit, but even this aesthetic never seems to have a life of its very own. It’s far too ugly to function as a comedy, and too scattershot to work as a socio-political satire. It’s no mystery that the Coen brothers have shelved the script for so long.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by George Clooney
Screenplay by George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Produced by George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Joel Silver, Teddy Schwarzman
Starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 105 minutes