What a hodgepodge of a film this is. Fifteen years after he first dipped his toe into directing waters, George Clooney has well and truly derailed with film number six.
A patchwork project, inspired by an old Coen Brothers cast-off, Suburbicon not only fails to capitalise on its stellar cast, crew and promising plot, but suffocates them with succession of tonal oddities and one extraordinary misstep. It’s almost incomprehensible that the film exists in this form.
Occasional sparkling glimpses of what the film could have been only add to the sense of baffling infuriation. Central to the problem with Suburbicon is that it’s principle blunder sits right at the awkwardly plonked heart of the film in a way that repeatedly undermines every other scene.
The film is set in the 1950s model town of Suburbicon, a commune of 60,000 well-to-do Americans, that prides itself on being a ‘melting pot of diversity’ in spite of being entirely white and well off. It is a Burton-esque, paradisal utopia of white supremacy, ripe and ready for a surpassed rotten core to burst free; as it does with the arrival of the African-American Meyers family. Upon a plush visual canvas by Robert Elswit and beneath Alexandre Desplat’s honey-sweet score, the townsfolk are revealed to be as bigotedly racist as you knew they would be. Thus, here begins a socio-racial drama.
Except, that’s when we cut to plot number two and the Lodge family across the road. There’s Gardner (Matt Damon – unrecognisably bland), his wife Rose, her sister Margaret (both, Julianne Moore), and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). They might play happy families, but there’s a catch: Rose is bound to a wheelchair from a car accident, that somehow involved her husband. When she gets bumped off by a pair of robbers, Margaret takes her image and her husband and its not long before young Noah smells a rat. He’s not the only one, with Oscar Isaac’s ‘professional skeptic’ of an insurance agent turning up on their doorstep with nose adjoint: ‘I go fishing and this time I’ve caught a whopper’.
Either one of these stories might have worked perfectly fine but instead Clooney’s is a script that wedges both together in such a way that is only successful at undermining both. The Meyers story is largely abandoned, with the family barely scraping ten lines between them, whilst the Lodge strand can’t help but feel deeply trivial, as race riots kick off on the other side of the fence. It’s like watching Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul told from the perspective of the staircase gossips.
As regards for tone, the film is bizarrely inept. The influence of the Coens is tangible here but, whereas Fargo was a masterpiece in black comedy, Suburbicon seems intent on nailing much broader strokes. Supposed gags include Gardner being mistaken for a Jew (‘I’m episcopalian’/‘I thought you were Jewish’) before the film segues to scenes intimidation and violence, touching base on the appalling segregation being inflicted on the Meyers as an after thought.
The film is most successful in its final stretches, particularly with a traumatic sequence of violence, witnessed through the eyes of Nicky, and a very well conceived payoff; even then, the thrills are offset by the highly misjudged treatment of the race riot kicking off next door. Only Isaac and Jupe come out unscathed, the former stealing the whole show in one scene and the latter continuing to show promise as a rising young star.
When it comes to Suburbicon, take the bypass. You can bet Clooney will.