A film review by Craig J. Koban November 7, 2017


2017, R, 105 mins.


Matt Damon as Gardner  /  Oscar Isaac as Roger  /  Noah Jupe as Nicky /  Julianne Moore as Margaret  /  Megan Ferguson as June  /  Alex Hassell as Louis  / Karimah Westbrook as Mrs. Meyers  /  Leith M. Burke as Mr. Meyers

Directed by George Clooney  /  Written by Clooney, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, and Grant Heslov




SUBURBICON is a new black comedy/social satire that's constantly at war with itself.  

The problem with this film is not that it lacks narrative and thematic ambition, but rather that it has no idea whatsoever how to marry all of its discordant tones and story threads smoothly together to create a unifying and meaningful whole.  Its attempts to combine elements of a murder mystery, race relations drama, and a subversive commentary on docile 1950s suburban family life makes for a widely uneven and dissatisfying watch, which is made all the more frustrating seeing that it was directed by George Clooney, co-written by the Coen Brothers, and stars a bounty of Oscar nominated stars.  SUBURBICON has absolutely no business whatsoever being so awkwardly assembled, messy, and creatively undisciplined. 

Perhaps the big elephant in the room with Clooney's six film behind the camera is that...well...he's not a Coen Brother.  SUBURBICON has the superficial look and feel of something that the Coens may have tackled years ago, but Clooney - a routinely fine filmmaker when given just the right material to work with (CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, and THE IDES OF MARCH) - doesn't have the visual panache to effectively pull off this material, nor does he fully encapsulate the Coens' unique and hard to imitate brand of macabre absurdity.  What's odder is that Clooney and the brothers have worked countless times before (O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, BURN AFTER READING and HAIL, CAESAR!), so you'd think that he be able to approximate the Coens brand of specialized madness.  SUBURBICON was written by the Coens over three decades ago (with serious augmentations made by Clooney and his long-time partner Grant Heslov), but the resulting film feels like a work that's feebly trying to approximate the Coens' aesthetic with only intermittent levels of success.   



The script itself features two movies for the price of one, with neither really complimenting the other.  The first story thread introduces us to a family living in the peaceful town of Suburbicon in an unspecified period in the 1950s.  If the film has one thing going for it then it's definitely its opening, which features a marketing film within the film that goes out of its way to sell Suburbicon as an idealistic paradise of beautiful homes, scenic vistas, and friendly citizens.  Everything in Suburbicon looks perfect...perhaps too perfect.  Residing there is the Lodge family, made up of Gardener (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe), whom all seem to live a relative life of harmony and middle class luxury...which is completely destroyed when two thugs break into their home and mercilessly kill Rose, leaving Gardener a widow and his son motherless.  Granted, Rose's twin sister (also played by Julianne Moore) swoops in to become Nicky's surrogate mother.  Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear to Nicky that his father and aunt seem oddly chummy after his mom's death, which leads to him suspecting that they may or may not have had something to do with it. 

That alone could have made for the overall narrative thrust of SUBURBICON, but Clooney manages to shoehorn in another story thread involving the Myers, a new black family that has just moved into the neighborhood, which doesn't sit too well with the ostensibly white families that make up Suburbicon's population.  Initially, the family is greeted with rude heckling that gives way to more aggressive forms of hostile group protest.  Sadly, full scale riots break out in front of their lovely home, with the local police doing very little to stop the rioters...mostly because they're enabling them.  The societal ugliness that permeates this particular subplot in SUBURBICON is difficult to bare at times and shows the darker underbelly of the fragility of race relations during the film's period, a time when not everyone was afforded the right to partake in the American Dream. 

Clooney's motives with this chunk of the film are beyond admirable.  Clearly, he wants to juxtapose the mindlessness of the townspeople violently turning this poor family's life upside down with that of a real scumbag like Gardener that's possibly committing murder right under their very eyes without much suspicion on anyone's part.  If anything, the plight and persecution of the Myers symbolizes the decay of decorum in the town, especially for one that outwardly embodies a clean cut message of loving and honoring thy neighbor.  Clooney makes a fatal mistake in assuming that the whole vibe of this somber and nightmarish subplot would coalesce with the somewhat wacky black comedy of the Lodge family.  There's something inherently unfunny about a bloodthirsty lynch mob that essentially wants to see every member of the Myers hang, and when those scenes are juxtaposed against the more absurdly comical spirit of Gardener's criminal activity it makes for mightily jarring transitions.  That, and the script never fully develops the members of the black family well at all, which does their whole story a grave disservice.  We rarely learn anything about these disenfranchised people, and that ultimately begs the question as to why they're even in the film to begin with. 

To be fair, Clooney has gone on record to admit that large chucks of the Coens' original script were severely re-written, with even more subplots that were shot not making the final film and left on the cutting room floor.  It's difficult to comprehend whether or not any fundamental changes that Clooney made to the Coens' original vision of the film have anything ostensibly to do with its tonal inconsistencies...but it sure feels that way.  SUBURBICON is most assuredly a handsomely mounted era specific picture that shows great conceptual joy in transporting viewers to a portrait of America several decades in the past, not to mention that its overall themes of small town comfort being poisoned by treachery and bloodshed are compelling to tackle.  Uncharacteristically, Clooney rarely demonstrates the confident wherewithal to make everything in this film work and surge together.  Plus, and as stated, trying to mimic the Coens tricky comedic style requires their rhythms and flow, which Clooney - and most directors - can't really duplicate. 

Clooney's assembled stars are as inconsistent as his handling of the material that they find themselves inhabiting.  Sans a very game Oscar Isaac (who briefly appears as a deliciously amoral and sleazy insurance salesman that begins to see kinks in Gardener's story about his wife's murder) and young Noah Jupe (thanklessly good in a very tricky role of the increasingly agitated son that begins to believe that his dad's a stone cold murderer), the rest of the cast here seems oddly disinterested.  Damon himself seems perplexing one note here and he never seems to fully inhabit his character and make him a richly compelling case study.  This isn't aided by the fact that, when it boils right down to it, Gardener is not a particularly well written main character, which leaves viewers confusingly trying to guess his motivations throughout.  He does occupy, however, one of the film's best scenes involving a father-to-son chat late in the story that achieves a level of macabre and tension filled edge that the rest of SUBURBICON desperately needed.   

Clooney is too fine of a natural filmmaker to make something so scattershot as SUBURBICON, and the manner that he sort of feebly attempts appropriate the Coen Brothers' playbook and visual mechanics all but subverts any semblance of his own fingerprint on screen.  The larger dilemma with SUBURBICON is that it presents two seemingly unrelated stories and hopes to somehow make them work off of one another, but both are so underwritten that it becomes increasingly hard to care about anyone or anything in it.  The bizarre seesaw juggling act between 1950s suburban parody and the barbaric realism of the civil rights unrest of the era simply doesn't gel here, leaving SUBURBICON feeling like a largely wasted and misguided effort that utilized the services of far too many talented people. 

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