By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
It is not uncommon for a project filled with so many talented people to fail to meet expectations, but Suburbicon is a particular disappointment, ripe with possibilities, but never allowing any one of its themes or topics to reach satisfying fruition.
Set in 1959, we are introduced to the idyllic town of Suburbicon, where families can enjoy the comforts of shopping malls, medical centres, and a caring, sharing community. As we see an overly cheerful mailman saying hello to plenty of familiar faces, he arrives on the doorstep of a newly arrived family, William and Daisy Meyers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook), and their young son Andy (Tony Espinosa), who are in the process of moving into their dream home. The mailman’s smile disappears once he sees that they are African American.
Next door, the Lodge family seem to enjoy a happy life. Rose Lodge (who is wheelchair bound) and her sister Margaret (both played by Julianne Moore) watch the Meyers moving in, and Rose even asks her young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) to play catch with Andy. It’s a simple gesture that indicates that the Lodges are progressive in a narrow-minded environment.
That night, the Lodge family are visited by two unwelcome intruders, Sloan (Glenn Fleshler) and Louis (Alex Hassell), who want to rob the family of their most valuable assets. Husband Gardner (Matt Damon) is angered but submissive, and although they do what the intimidating duo ask, Rose is tragically killed. At the funeral, Nicky is consoled by uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba), who wants the murderers found and justice carried out.
It isn’t long before Margaret has moved into the Lodge household, and Nicky starts to think that everything is not what it seems. This all plays out while the Meyers are threatened by the locals on a daily basis, who want them out of the neighbourhood as soon as possible.
Suburbicon is simply a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing. The plot showing the dark underside of 50’s white suburbia is heavy-handed and lacking a savage, sharp point, while the drama involving racism and integration (based on a true story) is fatally under-developed, with a family who are never properly introduced or developed, remaining merely a symbol throughout the entire picture. The facade of model suburbia has been skewered more effectively in the past, in films such as Blue Velvet, Edward Scissorhands, Parents, and The Stepford Wives (the 70’s version, not the terrible remake with Nicole Kidman). More recently we have seen some superb examples, most notably Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and David Lynch’s incredible return to Twin Peaks.
The script (which the Coen brothers apparently wrote back in the 1980’s) seems half-finished, but it may be due to the changes made by fellow screenwriters Clooney and his regular collaborator Grant Heslov, who have fused the Meyers story to the Coens’ original creation. There may have been added dimensions to the Lodge family, but with this new, important topic added to the mix, one feels that a lot of much-needed material has been jettisoned. A perfect example of the film’s clumsy, superficial nature is that the home invasion instills no sense of dread or menace, as the Lodges have been given so little screen time, especially Gardner, who is only introduced to audiences during this sequence.
With no real insight or connection to the Meyers family, and a lack of genuine observation of the surrounding white community (all we get is an overly familiar montage of 50’s nostalgia), this story never attains any dramatic impact, which is extraordinary given the fact that it is based on a true story. For a much more intelligent and moving look at this dark part of U.S. history, please watch Jeff Nichols’ Loving instead. The fevered finale is reminiscent of Do the Right Thing, Night of the Living Dead, and Straw Dogs, all vastly superior films.
Almost every performance misses the mark. Damon never registers as Gardner, remaining flat and one-note throughout (the original choice of Woody Harrelson would have been far better). Lupe is okay as Nicky, but the surface-level approach hampers his efforts. Moore has done a number of variations of this role (Far From Heaven, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Savage Grace), but the material gives the normally reliable actor little to do. Burke, Westbrook, and Espinosa, despite their characters playing such a central part in the mounting chaos, are given no chance to make any kind of impression, which is odd to say the least. The only one who rises above the material is Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex-Machina) who is energetic and amusing as insurance investigator Bud Cooper. His screen time is brief, but he makes his caricature more entertaining than it deserves to be.
Clooney, who impressed early in his directorial career with stunners such as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Goodnight, And Good Luck, has since seemed unable to control and translate productions from page to screen. Leatherheads was light-hearted fun sunk by unnecessary overlength (and a surprising lack of seasoned character actors), Ides of March was solid if unexceptional, while The Monuments Men was a curious misfire. Suburbicon continues this downward spiral, where a messy, unfocused viewpoint squanders any interest in several worthy themes raised, instead of picking one and hitting a bullseye. It is a telling factor when scenes involving Josh Brolin, one of the best actors working today, end up on the cutting room floor.
As expected, Suburbicon is nicely produced, with stylish production design by James D. Bissell (Someone to Watch Over Me, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), and costume design by Jenny Eagan (True Detective, Beasts of No Nation). Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit, who has created many unforgettable images with director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love, Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice), does solid work here. Prolific composer Alexandre Desplat (Zero Dark Thirty, Venus in Fur, Godzilla, The Grand Budapest Hotel) provides an irritating, intrusive score which tiresomely apes Bernard Hermann’s famous Hitchcock orchestrations.
While The Ladykillers is still easily the worst film written by the Coen Brothers (I haven’t seen their Gambit remake), Suburbicon is unfortunately another disaster. What their original script was like before Clooney and Heslov started making changes is hard to say, but the resultant film is nothing more than a well-intentioned mess, pushing a number of plot threads forward, but not letting a single one resonate or find a voice. With some of its subject matter still highly relevant, this proves to be completely disheartening.
Voice Over: Welcome to Suburbicon, a town of great wonder and excitement. Built with the promise of prosperity for all. Isn’t it time for your new start?
Gardner: Nicky, you need to get up. There are men in the house.