Review: Suburbicon

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George Clooney’s sixth directorial outing has all the trappings of a great film – a star-studded cast, charming ‘50s aesthetic and a Coen brothers script – but, like the American idyll of its setting, a film altogether more imperfect lies beneath the surface.

Margaret (Julianne Moore) and Gardner (Matt Damon) soon become embroiled with men threatening to permanently stain the linoleum floor and laminate worktops of their constructed idyll

The year is 1959. The Lodges, led by mild-mannered Gardner (Matt Damon), enjoy a quiet existence in Suburbicon, an all-white, picket fence neighbourhood constructed to cope with the housing boom of post-war America. Row upon row of barely distinguishable bungalows with square, manicured lawns crammed between white fences, wide sidewalks and smooth asphalt criss-crossing the neighbourhood stretch to the horizon. This is an aggressively pre-planned town which seems to encapsulate the curtailed American dream; its residents entertain lofty aspirations, but their futures seem as bounded to mediocrity as their prefab homes. As the Lodges become embroiled and indebted to the mob, Suburbicon’s façade begins to fall apart at its disingenuous seams.

It’s into this oppressive environment that the Meyers enter – the first African American family of the community. Their appearance serves as a shattering of the comfortable, entitled white lie of Suburbicon – as a refuge from society’s “problems” – and, as the Meyers attempt to integrate, their neighbours erupt into racial intimidation, violence and hysteria.

Oscar Isaacs plays Bud Cooper, the smooth-talking insurance agent sent to investigate the Lodges’ financial affairs – much anxious coffee-sipping ensues

 

Here’s the problem. This synopsis, like the film itself, is somewhat disconcerting – the Lodges’ tale appears to be an intriguing enough crime drama; the next paragraph/scene suddenly introduces an entirely different, and seemingly unconnected, sub-plot. The two stories barely intertwine, and one is given the impression of a director torn between telling two stories, so settling for both. Clooney is forced to prioritise one, and soon the Meyers’ tale becomes swept under the rug in an ironic subversion of the marginalisation of African American stories within the film industry; the very kind of marginalisation this film is falsely advertised as spotlighting. As in art, so in life; appearances are deceiving. In reality, the Meyers’ subplot is poorly tacked onto the bulk of the film – that of Matt Damon’s quest to clear his name after an insurance scam gone wrong– which risks making their story background noise.

Cinematographer Robert Elswit and director George Clooney on the set of Surbubicon. According to Clooney, the election of Donald Trump mid-shoot made the film’s commentary on social divisions feel all the more relevant

Nor is the film attempting a Love Actuallyesque portfolio of the various voices of 1950s America, cataloguing and chronicling the lives of two parallel families. The original Coen brothers’ script only includes the loan shark story of the Lodges; Clooney admirably, if unsuccessfully, added the racial subplot. As has been proved time and time again, when the directorial vision clashes with the intentions of the writers, the discrepancy soon becomes evident in the released film.

Suburbicon has the makings of an excellent film. The performances are resoundingly strong. Matt Damon is convincing as the embattled American father slowly corrupted into psychopathy and criminality by greed and stubbornness. Following in the trend of Lindsey Lohan and Tom Hardy in The Parent Trap and Legend respectively, Julianne Moore plays two characters – identical twins who are the wife and sister-in-law of Damon’s Gardner,  in what becomes an unsettling metaphor for small-town two-facedness. She is fantastic in both, as her maternity is gradually sullied into a twisted and even terrifying exercise of control over Gardner’s young son, Nicholas (Noah Jupe). Jupe’s character provides a much-needed magnet for the audience’s empathy and sympathy, in a film generally barren of emotionally relatable characters or morally admirable decisions.

Direction is more questionable. The idiosyncratic 50s style, with its ballooning cars and boxy TVs, is undoubtedly appealing. But the pacing is off, static at the start and rushed at the end, and the audience’s experience suffers from it. Clooney also struggles to balance comedy with tension. At times, the film evokes the style of Dr. Seuss, with its lurid domestic greens and magentas, oversized bicycles and comically owlish glasses, and caricatured villains seemingly better suited to Home Alone than a dark social commentary on American society. The film’s attempt to appear quirky and sardonic comes across as simply overblown Hollywood self-mockery.

Suburbicon, I am sure, had good intentions. The script is sound, and performances solid. But the constant focus on the Lodges’ predictable tale of moral downfall ends up perpetuating, or at least doing nothing to prevent, ignoring black stories within Hollywood. I was planning on including a picture of the Meyers in this review – after all, one can easily become fatigued with the film royalty of Damon and Clooney. In a final act of irony, however, the studio hadn’t released any. Seemingly the advertisers have not learned the lesson the film is so separately trying to promote. Suburbicon gets two stars.

★★☆☆☆