Review

Ah, awards season; are we back at that special time of year already? As 2017 starts to wrap up, the major studios are getting their prestige titles prepped and ready to go, hoping to lure in both strong box office and, more importantly, critical/awards recognition. But there’s always a few titles that fall below expectations. And then there are the titles that really fall below expectations. One that’s already hit that point is Suburbicon – directed by George Clooney, primarily written by the Coen Brothers and starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac – and its disappointments are especially staggering. But what is it in this specific film that betrays such a sharp concept?

As a colorful film strip, featuring one of composer Alexandre Desplat’s manipulatively playful contributions that further establishes him as one of music’s best living composers, that opens the film declares, the titular Suburbicon, wonderfully brought to life by the efforts of Mr. Clooney’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit and James D. Bissell’s production design, is a small town that could be any 1950s American town, a scenic and pastel-painted “utopia” with plenty of diversity to spare, ranging from white families from New York to white families from Ohio to… white families from Mississippi. In other words, Suburbicon is whiter than the cinematography for The Hateful Eight’ and ‘The Revenant’ combined, but as stated, it’s a pleasant little town without any real trouble. That is, until the unassuming Meyers family, whose crime is being black, moves into the neighborhood. And like that old adage goes, some things never change.

When Suburbicon isn’t focused on how the townspeople resort to savage behavior and attitudes towards the Meyers, its eye is on their next-door neighbors, the Lodge family, made up of salesman father Gardner (Matt Damon), handicapped homemaker Rose (Julianne Moore) and innocent son Nicky (Noah Jupe). They’re the sort of iconographic family you’d see in vintage magazines and brochures advertising the perfection to be had with hard work. But that perfect brochure world is shattered when two burglars (played with appropriate menace and sleaze by Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) break into their home and the situation ultimately leaves the Lodge home without a wife and mother.

After the invasion and funeral, the sense the world used to make falls by the wayside for young Nicky and with good reason. Rose’s sister Margaret (also played by Ms. Moore) permanently moves in to take over her sister’s role, going as far as to make herself up to look like her and assuming every duty a wife and mother has in the book (and we mean ALL of them). The villains are caught by the cops, but Gardner doesn’t identify them, claiming he can’t remember the faces of those who murdered his wife. Talks of boarding school arise out of nowhere when the son tries to catch the attention of his more compassionate uncle. And when a snoopy insurance claims investigator (Oscar Isaac) with a hunch and a greed that needs to be fed arrives in town, pandemonium is ready to break loose, but not just for the Lodges as tensions over their neighbors escalate into a hellish night for all to remember.

It’s easy to pinpoint where Suburbicon’s biggest problem comes from: unfortunately, from the name on the marquee as big as the title. As a filmmaker, Mr. Clooney has proved himself to be at his best when making pointed political dramas like ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ and ‘The Ides of March’. With Suburbicon, there’s more than enough material to make a pitch black satire that stands proudly along those films, but the contributions he and regular co-writer Grant Heslov bring are ultimately more of a detriment than a strength. Suburbicon is an especially savage Coen Brothers yarn and one that would have been more of a success under a different director, even directed by the men themselves. That comment isn’t meant to slander Mr. Clooney’s abilities as a filmmaker, but there come a handful of scenes where it feels he’s too timid to truly embrace its misanthropic ideology. Though to be fair, it’s certainly darker than most studio films would be willing to go.

It’s also hard to discuss aspects of Matt Damon’s performance without going into some major spoilers, but from what can be said, this is genuinely one of the best of his career. There’s something joyous about watching him carry through the gradual transition from unassuming all-American “father knows best” stereotype to the personified worst of the American Dream with tightened precision and panache. Julianne Moore, currently giving another masterclass performance in Todd Haynes’ ‘Wonderstruck‘, has her own tightrope to walk in bringing two sides of the same wound-up coin to life, and once again making her craft look effortless in the process. And Oscar Isaac, for his brief time on screen, goes for broke in bringing the big laughs out; it’s honestly a shame he isn’t in the film longer as he would have added a little more depth to what works. But the one who should be on everyone’s radar is young Noah Jupe. Making a small name for himself last year on Susanne Bier’s acclaimed mini-series ‘The Night Manager’, Mr. Jupe has the difficult job of being playing the most innocent player of the game as he becomes awakened to a foul reality and he sells the hell out of it from start to end.

As for the actors playing the terrorized Meyers family, they do an admirable job of conveying their distress and desire for normalcy – with Karimah Westbrook wearing stoicism like a favorite sweater in one rather humiliating scene making it clear her business is unwelcome at the local grocery store) – but that’s about it for them. It’s easy to feel sympathy for them in their undeserved plight, but the script doesn’t allow them to genuinely be people in a story that desperately needs their symbolic lambs to actually have feelings and needs.

At the time of this writing, Suburbicon currently holds a 40% consensus on Rotten Tomatoes. While the film does let its premise and talented cast and crew down, that specific number is an unfair representation. With the positive aspects it ultimately does achieve, it’s better than that rating suggests, but it’s still a film that would have benefitted from a filmmaker who’s demonstrated a knack for crossing genres and ideas, something Mr. Clooney currently doesn’t have as strong a grip on as he’d like to think he does. And for that, Suburbicon is a film of big ideas and great talent, but disappointing resonance, especially with its relevant message amidst the carnage.

* as a postscript, once again, credit must be given to whatever executives at Paramount are greenlighting movies like Suburbicon and Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. I can’t think of a major studio that would have the cojones to OK movies like these two; now time to sit back and see if Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing joins this club.



About the Author

William Coffey
William is a first time film blogger, full time cinema enthusiast. When he's not writing about film, he's using his time to work on a number of screenplays and various op-eds about the state of film. He currently lives in Los Angeles.