Sometimes a group of talented people with the best intentions get together and make a failure. Such is the case for ‘Suburbicon’, a film written by the Coen brothers, directed by George Clooney, and starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac.
I’m sure that no one involved wanted to deliver crap. In fact, they were clearly striving for something off-kilter and thoughtful. Yet crap they made nonetheless. It’s a shame because all that effort really would have been better spent elsewhere by these exact people.
The Coens’ script that started this whole shambles was apparently written in the 1980s shortly after their debut ‘Blood Simple’ and feels like it. Some ideas here popped up in later and far superior Coen movies, polished and improved beyond their goofy origins. The basic plot involves Matt Damon playing a seemingly kind 1950s suburban dad who actually arranged for his wife’s murder in order to live with her sister (both played by Julianne Moore). Unfortunately, his son gets involved and everything goes wrong. Gardner (Damon) frantically tries to cover his tracks and pay off debts while dodging supporting eccentrics like Oscar Isaac’s smooth-talking insurance investigator. While all this madness is going on, the first black family has moved into the neighborhood and are angrily protested by the white folks frightened of the change. You see, they are kind and have done nothing but get blamed for the color of their skin, while the actually evil Gardner’s actions go unnoticed because he’s white. Get the message? Don’t worry, if you don’t Clooney keeps hammering it home through archival footage and manipulative montages.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to cram a little social commentary into a loony crime comedy. That’s actually a worthy addition for Clooney to make to a dusty old Coens farce. However, that racial commentary is so divorced from all the slapstick gore, infidelity and betrayal at the center of ‘Suburbicon’ that it barely registers. In fact, the material trivializes the big issues Clooney is trying to address by shoving them into a movie where Matt Damon flees a crime scene on a comically small bicycle. The black family have no depth and hardly any dialogue. That storyline feels tacked-on in an attempt to fuse meaning into a movie about meaningless violence and cruel fate. The director achieves the opposite of his intentions. Clooney’s ham-fisted attempts at making a statement might actually offend the audience he’s reaching out to by bungling the delivery so badly. That’s a problem so big that it kills the rest of the movie.
Not that there’s very much to enjoy here. While some sparkly bits of snappy Coen dialogue slip through here and there, it’s surprising how stale this material feels. When the script was conceived in the ’80s, the 1950s nostalgia and attacks on suburban fantasies might have seemed hip and cutting. Now it feels old and obvious. The movie has some amusing twists and bits of slapstick violence, just not enough to get invested or offer any pleasant surprises.
The cast is good, but aside from the character actors in the corners everyone seems to be repeating old work with less impact. Julianne Moore has done perky wives with dark secrets plenty of times and this cartoon exaggeration isn’t one of her best. Oscar Isaac may steal his scenes, but his slick, mustached leech feels like a bunt from an actor capable of more. As for Damon, he’s fine but has played the nice-guy-with-a-dark-secret role for so long that it’s a routine easy to predict at this point.
None of the big names in the cast offer much that they haven’t done better before, the story is a tired collection of Coen clichés that even those brothers have abandoned, and Clooney somehow makes the script worse by trying to politicize it. ‘Suburbicon’ disappoints on all of the movie’s selling points. Is there anything nice to say? The ’50s fantasy production design is delightfully exaggerated and the cinematography by the great Robert Elswit delivers one beautifully loopy image after the next. The film is gorgeously mounted on a technical level.
Combined with all the famous names involved, it must have been easy to package this product with delightful trailers and eye-catching posters, enough so that if you’re a fan of any single element of ‘Suburbicon’ you might convince yourself to give the movie the benefit of the doubt after all the bad reviews. Don’t make that mistake. Trust me. I wanted this movie to be good. I really did, but it’s a mess that will disappear quickly from theaters and that everyone involved will pretend doesn’t exist in a matter of weeks.