Liam Donovan reviews George Clooney’s latest.
This review originally appeared on the author’s blog. It has been slightly modified.
In a year Donald Trump has taken his office as President of the United States and white supremacist rallies have been held in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, it is hardly surprising the cinematic landscape has responded to developments in politics. If Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (not out in UK cinemas until 2018) focused on the inherently racist and complacent structures which continue to exist in disgruntled Middle America, then George Clooney’s Suburbicon turns back the clock to a more idealised picture of suburban life from the 1950’s, under a glossy sheen that attempts to conceal the hatred, intolerance and anger really felt by Americans during that time. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival, Suburbicon has become a critical and commercial failure. There is however a valuable undercurrent to this much-maligned crime thriller that, lest we forget, was in fact adapted from an unfilmed Coen Brothers script.
After an African-American family move into the utopian neighbourhood of “Suburbicon”, there is uproar amongst the racist white community: many of the residents retreated to the town in an effort to avoid people of other races. Set against the backdrop of this unrest is a mystery surrounding the murder of Rose Lodge (Julianne Moore) after two criminals invaded the home she shared with mild-mannered husband Gardner (Matt Damon) and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). As Nicky and insurance agent Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) soon realise, all is not as it seems, especially when Rose’s sister Maggie (also Moore) moves into the house. The emergence of tensions within the family, and the eventual downward spiral that begins to manifest itself, is designed to echo the increasingly chaotic events outside of the home, as the bitter response to the Mayers’ arrival grows into a riotous frenzy.
With a cast of this calibre, a director who – despite some misses – has given more to the industry than he’s taken away, and the kind of material that should be especially potent in the current political climate, it is hard to see how this could have gone so wrong. Suburbicon is a watchable film that features some incredibly intense sequences of wince-inducing violence but, despite some redeeming qualities, this is a fundamentally broken and confused offering from Clooney. It should be noted that the original script penned by the Coens was entirely focused on the trials and tribulations of Gardner Lodge and his family. Adapting the screenplay, alongside regular collaborator Grant Heslov, Clooney introduced the African-American family next door that becomes a particular problem throughout this movie, the horror of their circumstances repeatedly sidelined as the balancing act between concurrent storylines starts to wobble. The bones of something rather good are definitely present, but they are hidden here beneath a great deal of unfortunate flab.
Aesthetically, Clooney’s cinematographer Robert Elswit should be commended for effectively transporting the audience to this eerily sterile and pastel image of prosperous post-war America. The production design and score by Alexandre Desplat also contribute to a purposely stereotypical amalgamation of fifties tropes, and a surface-level perfection pervaded by the frightening and discriminatory attitudes of Suburbicon’s citizens. Flaws, meanwhile, pervade Clooney’s picture. Not only does the sub-plot become an afterthought on a consistent basis, only tied to the rest of the narrative by an underdeveloped friendship between Nicky Lodge and the son of the Mayers, but the borderline cartoonish depiction of racism in Suburbicon is not exactly helpful. Pushed to an almost comic degree of exaggeration, the prejudice towards this vilified family that should discomfort you is presented in such an unreal manner that there is never an opportunity to form the desired emotional reaction. This is symptomatic of the rest of the film, where the viewer is held at such a distance that an engagement with the characters and the struggle they face is denied.
For much of the thankfully brisk runtime, Clooney and his cast seem to be working on auto-pilot, and Suburbicon is mostly offensive for being utterly mediocre. If you have seen the trailer then I’m afraid to say you have seen the film as well. We are introduced to Gardner Lodge, essentially the protagonist, so abruptly that we know next to nothing about him; what does he want, how can you summarise his personality, and what has pushed him to the edge on which we see him at the beginning of the movie? These vital questions that should characterise him are left unanswered. The relationships between members of the Lodge family are similarly stilted and poorly sketched, and watching these talented performers phone it in for nearly two hours is pretty disheartening to say the least. Every twist in the drama is curiously telegraphed a few scenes earlier, and Clooney never generates the mysteriousness or sense of anticipation which is really required to make this story work. To define it more simply, Suburbicon plays like a mundane checklist of Oscar-baiting ‘prestige’ cinema.
The persistent streak of lifelessness that can be traced throughout the feature is all the more obvious when Oscar Isaac comes along and steals the show in the first of his two scenes. The energy, momentum and entertainment sorely missing in Suburbicon is captured very quickly by Isaac’s supporting turn that, above all else, is the antithesis of this underwhelming and often boring ‘thriller’. He plays a charismatic and conniving insurance agent who investigates the claim Gardner lodges (pun definitely intended) after his wife’s death. Never is the film more gleefully silly and enjoyable than during his exchange with Julianne Moore’s Maggie, with Bud Cooper getting under her skin to the audience’s delight. The tragicomic tightrope Clooney tries to walk is, similar to the uneven structure, very unstable and usually unsuccessful, but in a short scene like this Isaac pulls off that tricky mixture of professional seriousness and macabre frolics that is mismanaged everywhere else.
The only surprise you might not expect is the perspective which the movie takes, with events regularly presented from the viewpoint of Nicky Lodge. He is also positioned at the very centre of each dramatic development, so much so that this starts to feel like his story. Experiencing first-hand both the literal and moral breakdown of his family, we are supposed to be the most concerned for his safety, with Nicky trapped in an exceedingly precarious situation. This though, once again, is at odds with the family who are facing a mob at their front door, and the ever-shifting focus of Suburbicon makes it very hard to know where we should deposit the majority of our sympathies. Somehow, this is a piece of cinema that manages to be both messy and incoherent, as well as utterly perfunctory, while the sheer monotony one is forced to contend with will preventing this one from ever becoming a guilty pleasure.
To return to where this review began: Suburbicon had the chance to shine a light on the racist social structures and hostility of the past, before connecting it to some of the recurring problems that are rearing their heads again today. Instead, Clooney really had nothing to say about these issues and the film he produces seems lightweight because of it. Why introduce a commentary on the underlying racism of supposedly civilised and upstanding white Americans and then refuse to take it in any meaningful direction? Oscar Isaac’s short appearance is almost worth the price of admission alone, but on the whole this marks another disappointing outing for the director, even if the muddled plot and dissatisfying characters are not quite as unbearable as whatever The Monuments Men was supposed to be. For all the awards it was clearly aiming for, don’t expect anybody to remember this one in a few months’ time.
Suburbicon came out the 27th of November in the UK. Check out the trailer below: