by Joe Hammerschmidt
Right off the top, I must stress that Suburbicon simply will not please everyone. A fruitful reunion between friends and frequent collaborators Joel & Ethan Coen and George Clooney, most recently working together on last year’s Hail, Caesar!, this new pseudo-horror flick is wired to leave a rather flat taste in one’s mouth. Depending on who you talk to, that may not be as much a red flag as expected. It is a quirky piece of horror, yet still not without a heavy amount of faults one could easily ignore while trying to find the single shroud of inner meaning the writing team, joined by Clooney’s creative partner Grant Heslov, are striving to convey.
The film opens as squeaky-clean as the standard wholesome American image it represents, with a recruitment film-style prologue echoing the idyllic nature of the Cold War age, when it seemed everything was in a state of societal perfection. Suburbicon, an adequate small-town installation in the Cold War age, is appropriately rocked with the arrival of the neighborhood’s first black family, the Mayers’, and with it, a figurative home invasion masking the sting of the actual story.
While the racism takes a backseat, Matt Damon plays the driver. He assumes the role of business exec Gardner Lodge, a scrupulous type who means no harm, but is noticeably broken by society’s overt blandness. There’s little evidence to his own racism, yet he’s trapped in further deep over his head when facing a pair of mobsters he owes a lump sum to following their murder of his wife. Lodge is one-part stricken with grief, the other frozen in fear for an on-the-surface robbery that spirals out of control, mirroring the later racial tension playing out in the background. With son Nicky (newcomer Noah Jupe), and in-laws Rose (Julianne Moore) and Mitch (Gary Basaraba) close to him, he seeks to recover from the loss while keeping his head underground.
Not an easy task when your whole town is on edge in an uproar, but easy enough to say the same for similar Coen works that play to the strengths and weaknesses of a small community. Adding Clooney to the mix gives Suburbicon a delicate touch of class, but the mixture of intense melodrama thriller and dark comedy is still sorely off-balance. The charismatic playboy had tread similar ground 12 years prior, with Good Night and Good Luck, yet that’s not quite saying much for the film’s message; racial profiling vs McCarthy era politics, it could never be fair to decide which would make a better film in George’s hands.
To make matters worse, the Coens’ own playbook on unstable characterization, for once, is less of an even match. Even Damon as the confused patriarch, while admirable is his performance, is just painfully unlikeable, almost as if it were on purpose. Moore as the seductive-yet-manipulative aunt who’s only playing along has a much better time, not quite flamboyant, but certainly showing a sophisticated flair. But nonetheless, too few positive attributes and the likelihood of no character considering any form of heroic action left me with absolutely nobody I could’ve rooted for.
This may just be a design flair that weighs down the rest of the film, causing that sour taste. Sure, you have a peppy, Oscar-worthy Alexandre Desplat score, that only fits when the suburban landscape is shown in a more positive light. Same goes with Robert Elswit’s cinematography; it all looks splendiferous, and oddly reminiscent of the old school films from that era. That kind of time-capsule filmmaking is serviceable, but it’s just in the wrong genre here.
And may I not understate the pure randomness of Oscar Isaac, who neither helps nor hurts the action as a snooping PI who attaches himself too close to the case, but is otherwise underused. Knowing he had his first big break working with the Coens on Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s just insulting to have a potentially witty foil for Lodge reduced to a barely comic cameo.
As much fun as the group of performers appeared to have in Suburbicon, it’s all a coddled mess where most of the time is spent on Damon and his personal demons, at points making less sense than the plot as a whole. In the end, you will likely wonder why anything on the script should’ve occurred in the first place. Make no mistake, it is your standard Coen Bros flick with the aid of Clooney’s twisted sense of humor as director. He may have grown up as a family man, but his interests as a filmmaker may have just a bit of catching up. This is still a fun film to watch, though a second viewing should only be necessary to refresh the memory come Oscar time. It should never be taken too seriously or its lack of guidance will cause a certain burnout before everything begins to gel together, in the last five minutes, literally in the last scene. Until then, just pack some patience and hope to find something positive to take away. (C+)
Suburbicon opens this weekend at most area theaters; rated R for violence, language, and some sexuality; 105 mins.