At the start of “Suburbicon,” the 1957-set drama directed by George Clooney, a horrible crime is committed in a vast suburb. Without giving too much away, a woman is murdered in front of her family, a child witnesses the horrifying crime and a visit to the police station only unveils another level of wrongdoings. While very bad things are taking place in the home of Gardner (played by Matt Damon) and his wife (played by Julianne Moore), another foul incident is occurring one house away: an African-American family moves in next door and is instantly harassed and tormented by the other neighbors in the predominantly white neighborhood. The decision to focus on the crime story and literally shove the racial violence subplot into the background is one of the many things wrong with this movie.
Let’s talk about the screenplay, which was famously unfinished by Joel and Ethan Coen and completed by Clooney and his writing/producing partner, Grant Heslov. One of the central observations made is that, as a race crime is building in a black household, another, different violation in their white neighbor’s home is escalating but overlooked. If the two story threads merged in a meaningful way, the film might have worked. As is, the African-American characters are marginalized and register as little more than symbols. For a highly touted script penned by four highly lauded film artists, “Suburbicon’ feels half baked and unfinished.
Damon is miscast here, playing a variation on the tragic/pathetic lout William H. Macy turned into a master class in “Fargo.” His performance never gets under the skin of the character, though Damon fights a losing battle, as the character isn’t fully realized. The same goes for Moore, a typically brilliant actress who is visibly trying to dig into her part and doesn’t quite get there. Moore plays twins here and, sad to say, this isn’t one of those celebratory occasions where one performer creates two distinctly different individuals. I hate to say it but, in this case, less is Moore.
“Suburbicon” has been improperly promoted as a dark comedy but is actually a social commentary sprinkled with vicious sequences of violence. What makes it an interesting failure is that Clooney is visibly trying very hard to make a Coen Brothers movie. Despite having worked for Joel and Ethan Coen twice and selecting a production with great collaborators, this only demonstrates how hard it is to make a great Coen Brothers movie. What Clooney especially botches is the tone and a consistent note for his cast to play.
The actor who nails every scene is Oscar Isaac, who recently starred in the Coen Brother’s “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Isaac’s supporting role, as a cleverer-than-he-looks insurance agent, is a highlight, as he clearly knows what kind of movie he’s in. I also loved the look of “Suburbicon,” with its lavish recreation of late 50’s Americana. Every car, kitchen and bedroom is full of meticulous period detail. There’s also the animated bit that opens the film and establishes the racial tension angle, which should have powered the story but feels like background noise.
Clooney’s output as a director so far is inconsistent. I loved “Good Night and Good Luck,” his still-timely dramatization of journalist Edward R. Murrow’s battles against fear mongering and for the legitimacy of investigative reporting. Otherwise, Clooney also made the unsteady “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” an ultimately forgettable “Leatherheads”, the overly obvious “The Ides of March” and “The Monuments Men,” perhaps the gentlest film ever made about WWII. He clearly aims to make serious, unorthodox works, in the same way Sydney Pollack once did. Clooney’s brand of adult-minded movies combines state of the art filmmaking and his political views but, aside from “Good Night and Good Luck,” the screenplays he’s chosen lack focus.
The ending of “Suburbicon” rings false, as it suggests a maudlin conclusion and asks the audience to overlook the more pressing story threads it leaves behind. The intention to combine a Coen Brothers murder farce and a depiction of systemic racism that mirrors recent events has resulted in lopsided work. Clooney should have worked harder on the screenplay, then turned it over to another director…namely, The Coen Brothers.
–originally published in Maui Time Weekly