SHOULD I SEE IT?
The Coen Brothers and George Clooney are a combination who have worked well in the past and their collaboration here is intriguing.
Fans of dark, domestic satires will have a lot to ponder and chew on here.
Coen Brothers fans will see lots of trademark moments that remind them of the quirks and creative scenarios the Oscar-winning brothers have given us in the past.
This. Doesn't. Work.
Perhaps the most surprising takeaway from Suburbicon isn't that it is a nasty, domestic satire, but that is so tone deaf to the societal themes and issues it is trying to tackle.
No one here is likable, except a child, subjected to a lifetime's worth of trauma and unsettling situations.
Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the framework of Suburbicon in 1986, during the era of Ronald Reagan, in the height of his overwhelmingly positive approval ratings. The world was in a bit of consternation at this time, the depths of which were not quite known. President Reagan was navigating us through the Cold War and attempting to improve the economy through something later known as "trickle-down economics." And while the Iran/Contra scandal broke wide open in the fall of that year, a campaign to "Just Say No" came with the "War on Drugs." On top of that, we began seeing a deepening cultural divide. And yet, despite all the challenges facing us, on the surface, and in the eyes of most voters and taxpayers, things seemed to be going relatively smoothly across middle America.
However, the African-American community was becoming something of an afterthought. This would also be a period in time where the Reagan Administration would frame subtle attacks against Affirmative Action initiatives, dubbing them "reverse racism...targeting innocent people unjustly." In subsequent years, we would learn that the administration orchestrated a plan with the CIA to team with the Contras to partner in an illicit drug trade, creating a relay where cocaine was introduced to vulnerable and impoverished communities, in predominantly black neighborhoods. Those profits would then be funneled to Colombian drug lords and empowering people without money and resources to cut corners and suddenly make a lot of money. The story, documented by journalist Gary Webb in 1996, and corroborated by multiple sources in the government, decimated black communities and neighborhoods in ways which some of those areas have yet to recover.
When Reagan won re-election by a landslide in 1984, he only garnered 9% of the African-American vote, and fell out of favor with a community believing he undermined their daily lives, played "dog whistle politics" with their concerns and struggles, and was largely leaving them behind.
Suburbicon feels reactionary, and though director George Clooney and co-writer/co-producer Grant Heslov gave the film a significant rewrite, the film's origins emanate from a time in the 1980s where race relations felt somewhat in peril - that at any moment gains made by and within the black community could be snuffed out or stifled completely.
It's the late 1950's in a pre-Civil Rights Act America and we begin with a witty and satirical prologue, depicting the community of Suburbicon as diverse, with families (all white, natch) moving there from across the country. We stumble upon Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore), young son Nicky (Noah Jupe), and Rose's sister Margaret (also Moore), helping the family after a recent car accident weakened Rose and left her in her present state.
Panic and paranoia ensues when a non-white family has moved into the community for the first time. The Meyers family are new next-door neighbors to the Lodges, and although Nicky strikes up a friendship with their son Andy (Tony Espinosa), the community is up in arms over the new residents' arrival.
As people begin congregating outside the Meyers home, the Lodges are attacked by two criminals who have come to rob them. When they bring out the chloroform and put everyone to sleep, Nicky awakens in a hospital bed, with Gardner and Aunt Margaret informing him that his mother was too weak and did not survive the chloroform attack.
Suburbicon quickly escalates into a dark, dense domestic satire. Much of the film feels like a spinoff of sorts, or a de facto sequel to the far superior Coen Brothers classic, Fargo. Pithy humor, over-the-top behavior, and dastardly secrets all come into view, with Clooney astutely framing much of the film from the perspective of Nicky. The intent is to make the movie bigger than life, bolder than normal, giving us a wide-eyed, somewhat naive and juvenile look at men and women behaving badly.
But as the movie plays on, Suburbicon becomes a really big mess. Like super big. Like the kind of mess you think one or two towels can take care of, but then you suddenly realize you are out of paper towels and this may be leaving a stain if you don't act quickly.
The Meyers characters are relegated to virtually no significant screen time as the movie stumbles ahead. In all honesty, the movie is almost offensive in turning the story of an African-American family, victimized and targeted each and every day, into little more than a prop or an interstitial moment to string scenes together.
By the time the Meyers family sees their world torn apart by an increasing mob of scary, frightening, and violent white Suburbicon men, we realize we are watching a movie more preoccupied with showing us the novelty of seeing a broken glasses-wearing, shirt-tucked and khaki-clad Matt Damon frantically riding a children's Schwinn bicycle away from a bad guy.
How did George Clooney of all people make a movie so tone deaf to the world we live in nowadays?
One thought might be that Clooney, Heslov, and the Coens are making the very obvious point that as the Lodge family becomes caught up in a ridiculous situation, plump with bad decisions, silly crimes, and worse behavior, an African-American family is under attack and no one cares. Decency is essentially dead. The inequities of society are so vast that white characters can get away with murder and a black family cannot hang clothes on a clothesline without being assaulted verbally in their own backyard.
Clooney never finds a way to bring these two stories together. Because we have invested such little time with the Meyers family (the father, played by Leith M. Burke, never utters one substantive word of dialogue in the entire film), every time Clooney cuts back to them, the movie feels disingenuous and almost reckless in its depiction of racial tension.
Suburbicon just does not work. As it rolls on, the movie becomes tough to sit through. "Fun" is stripped away and the movie becomes shrouded in a bleak, unrelenting coldness that never reaches a satisfactory end.
On the positive side of things, though Damon and Moore are good here, Oscar Isaac swoops in for two terrific scenes and steals the movie with 4-5 minutes of screen time. The best performance comes from 12-year-old Jupe, in his first major role, as a kid who must stay consistently strong and hold his resolve, as everything he knows about his world begins to crumble down around him.
From a production design standpoint, and with some appropriately melodramatic and over-the-top music cues from composer Alexandre Desplat, Suburbicon has some nice qualities about it.
In totality, the film just leaves you unsettled and feeling a little bit icky. Coen Brothers apologists will gyrate this way and that way trying to defend this movie, but Suburbicon could not be more ignorant of its optics, self-amused with itself, and a baffling misfire of a project.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Karimah Westbrook, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell, Tony Espinosa, Megan Ferguson, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba, Michael D. Cohen, Leith M. Burke.
Director: George Clooney
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Release Date: October 27, 2017