Suburbicon opens with a clever, storybook-style, advertisement for its titular 1950s community. It is presented as a lovely place for families from all over to come and live. This is immediately followed by a scene showing the shocked reaction the townsfolk have to a black family moving in. These first few minutes seem to be foreshadowing a satirical dark comedy about the darkness and hypocrisy hiding behind the façade of a happy suburban community. After sitting through the entire film, it feels more like an attempt to provide meaning to a story that otherwise lacks any.
The film is actually about Gardner (Matt Damon), whose wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), is killed in a home invasion early in the story. Gardner asks his wife’s sister, Margaret (also played by Moore), to move in so she can help look after Gardner’s young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe). Unfortunately, the killers (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) do not seem to be finished with Gardner.
The rest of Suburbicon hinges on a series of twists, so I will not reveal any more of the plot. I will say that the film is a very nasty piece of business that became more unpleasant to watch as it wore on. Acclaimed Jewish writing/directing duo Joel and Ethan Coen originally came up with the idea for this film and began writing the screenplay in the mid-1980s. Eventually, they handed it off to George Clooney (who also directed) and his writing/producing partner Grant Heslov (a Jewish writer/director/producer/actor). By all accounts, they massively rewrote what was there, most notably adding in the story of the black Mayers family who move into this allegedly inclusive town and are repeatedly shown they do not belong by their new white neighbors (this incident is based on fact). Clearly, Clooney is trying to make a point by putting these stories side-by-side, but I am not sure what that point is.
There is an attempt to connect them by having Nicky befriend the Mayers’ son, Andy (Tony Espinosa); however, it is an uncomfortable fit. The racism, and a couple of awkward references to anti-Semitism (one in a conversation with the officer investigating his wife’s murder, the other during a television interview with one of the racist residents), is probably the reason Clooney wanted to make this film. The two stories are likely meant to comment on or inform each other in some way, but they never do. Part of the problem is that neither is fully developed. Suburbicon is two not very good movies uncomfortably put together.
Matt Damon and Julianne Moore, both very skilled actors, are oddly flat here, maybe intentionally. Regardless, the end result is very dull characters. Damon especially seems like he is just reading lines. The only time any life is injected into the film is when Oscar Isaac shows up in the last third. He seems like he is having a great time as a character who acts like he is smarter than everybody else and, as a result, things briefly perk up when he is on-screen.
Overall, Suburbicon is a mess. It feels like a Coen brothers film made without their control of tone and sensitivity to character. The satire falls flat and the dark comedy comes off as mean-spirited instead of funny. Clooney may have been intrigued by the Coen’s original idea as a vehicle for his message, but he is unable to present it in an entertaining and coherent way. His criminal characters are just unlikable instead of entertaining and the story about the Mayers’ feels pointless. The end result is a depressing misfire.
1½ out of 5
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews