For the burbs…
Pedigree is worth its weight in gold in the film industry. A well known and well regarded director, screenwriter, and cast can guarantee butts in seats and consequently, funding for said project. But of course, this in turn means expectations are high if all the elements seem highly attractive on paper but never properly materialize into a cohesive project. So I must confess, dear reader, that I find myself in the curious position where I found George Clooney-directed, Coen Brothers-written, and Matt Damon-starring film to be a far weaker production than a talking pony movie for babies. That’s show business, I suppose.
So it’s the 1950s and we find ourselves in the all-white neighborhood of Suburbicon where residents have their idyllic lifestyle upended by the sudden arrival of an African-American family. We then turn to Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his family being tied up by two robbers as they go about their looting business. To knock the family out, the pair use chloroform on Lodge, his wife (Julianne Moore), the wife’s twin sister (also Moore), and Lodge’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe). However, due to a chloroform overdose, the wife dies, leaving Nicky devastated. But he then begins to notice strange behavior coming from his dad and his aunt, not the least of which his aunt is wearing his mom’s clothes and also dyed her hair to match her late sister. Oh yeah and she’s screwing Gardner as well. Suspicions continue to mount as an insurance investigator named Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) starts to paint a far more sinister picture of what happened to Gardner’s wife and…what? Oh, you’re asking about the African-American family I started this paragraph out with? How awkward, because the film keeps cutting to this little plot detail even though it has jack shit to do with the drama concerning Garnder, his son, and the insurance investigator.
I’m not quite certain why Clooney, the Coen Brothers, and Clooney’s longtime associate, Grant Heslov, choose to add this subplot of a Black family moving into an all-white neighborhood when it has zero connection to the murder plot that is the focus of this film. Maybe because the white residents all begin to harass the African-American family in increasingly distressing ways as they remain blissfully unaware of the truly detestable actions taken by one of their neighbors. Except that would have had more weight if 1) the people of Suburbicon actually treated Damon’s character as a model citizen of their community (he isn’t and he barely interacts with anyone outside of the people in his home) or 2) the African-American family had literally anything to with the murder mystery. The film clumsily blames the murder on the African-American family in an offhand comment by one of the white civilians, but outside of the fact that the family’s son plays baseball with Nicky (and they never discuss the murder at all), this plot line could have been cut out entirely in order to focus on this second rate Fargo knockoff.
“Knockoff” really is the word of the day, because many of the film’s plot points run in tandem with the Coen Brothers’ original masterpiece. Now I wouldn’t take much issue if this was in essence of soft remake of one of their earlier works; after all, I did like Logan Lucky despite sharing more than a few plot points with the director’s previous work in Ocean’s 11. But Logan Lucky had interesting and vibrant characters as well as solid writing to go with having a similar plot occur in a different setting from its predecessor. Despite sharing similar writers, Suburbicon has nothing else of note going for it aside from some decent production design. Matter of fact, the writing doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers joint: none of their usual trademarks are here and the dialogue just feels flat and uninteresting. I legitimately started to suspect that the infamous siblings didn’t actually write this movie but found out their best buddy, Clooney, was making a cheap imitation of one of their works, so Clooney slapped their names on the production and paid them some hush money for a smooth release.
Well not only is the writing anything but smooth, this is by far Clooney’s weakest directed film. And Clooney is a very solid director normally, especially with his work in The Ides of March, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and of course Good Night, and Good Luck. But Suburbicon feels completely scattershot coming from him, especially with how he chooses to make reveals concerning the murder plot and in detailing Suburbicon itself as a neighborhood. At the very least he made sure his actors were all doing their jobs accordingly, so at least he has a step up from a complete disaster. I’ll also pay him a compliment in how he chooses to depict violence as both visceral and haunting to be satisfying while also being effective. But his pacing in the first half of this film lost me incredibly hard as the film meandered about not knowing what plot point it wanted to focus on or whether it was setting up a mystery, a thriller, or indeed a crime film.
Like I said, all the actors turn in solid performances but none of them (except one) really wowed me. The exception was Oscar Isaac, who’s character is used far too sparingly in the film. He honestly saved the film for me as he was both charming and incredibly fun to watch with his detective skills. Such a shame we couldn’t focus on him rather than Noah Jupe as the son caught in the middle of this bizarre family drama. He’s not bad at all, but the script doesn’t give him anything to do when we ironically follow him for a larger part of this film more than any other character. Damon and Moore were pretty forgettable, which is strange as the film’s driving force revolves around the actions of their characters.
Honestly, this is a very poor mishmash of a film with lots of ideas that never gel into a cohesive final product. Between the dropped sub plot and the forgettable characters, I’m left with very little to recommend in this movie save for some decent production design and Oscar Isaac’s performance. And even that you can browse on YouTube. At the same time, the film didn’t anger me nor can I say it’s an actively terrible movie. It just failed to engage me in any way and was simply frustrating to watch as several ideas failed to come together. So I’m left with ultimately giving this a very, very low…