Is it possible to die of second-hand embarrassment?
There are two films combined into one in co-writer/ director George Clooney’s SUBURBICON – and neither of them work because they are both too busy being overbearing and underwhelming. In fact, this is the exact sort of movie about which conservatives will mock liberals. And, unfortunately, the filmmaker gives them all the ammo to neg this film’s severely on-the-nose agenda. Listen, I’m a liberal and even I was thoroughly embarrassed by this woke mess. Not only do we get a poorly mimeographed Hitchcock-inspired tale, but also a heavy-handed drama about racial integration inspired by a true story, both set against 50’s suburbia. It will leave you speechless. Not in a good way – in the way where you can’t even.
The town of Suburbicon is a picturesque place. Though it’s only been around for twelve years, it’s a utopia filled with cookie-cutter homes, cheery dispositions and lots of lily white folks. However, life as the citizens know it changes once the Mayers, a perfectly lovely African-American family, move in and upset their sensibilities and sense of community. Whispers of dropping property values and attracting criminal elements abound. While the paranoid whites harass and intimidate the Mayers day and night, an actual crime takes place on the parallel street at the Lodge household. Two thugs break in, terrify Gardner (Matt Damon), his son Nicky (Noah Jupe), and aunt Maggie (Julianne Moore in a dual role), and kill wheelchair-bound matriarch Rose (also Moore). It’s not long until Nicky begins to suspect there’s something shady about his Dad’s dealings. Luckily, insurance investigator Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) also thinks so.
The script – written by Clooney and frequent producing partner Grant Heslov, both dusting off an old Joel and Ethan Coen script – is where it all goes wrong. Maybe we’d all be looking at a more prescient picture had the connective tissue been handled with better craft and care. As it stands this will have you face-palming, or head-desking, for almost the entire drawn-out run time. Clooney’s commentary, which is about as deep as a puddle, on society’s mob mentality being the great distracter from the truth earns the biggest Liz Lemon over-the-top eye roll in cinema’s history. At first he whispers it, through allusions, metaphors and motifs (the garter snake being the most obvious), but then screams, “Do you see? Do YOU see? DO YOU SEE?” – a scream that turns deafening by the time the residents’ racism reaches a fever pitch. Every time it cuts away from the escalating harassment against the Mayers family, it relegates them to the b-story. They’re utilized as props in their own based-on-true-life story. It’s unbearable.
Some ideas are overdeveloped, landing on the heads of the audience with dull thuds. Suburbicon prides itself on being a melting pot, yet when their liberal acceptance is confronted by the mere presence of a person of color, their cloaks fall. Gimme a break. Other ideas lay underdeveloped. Positioning Nicky as the protagonist (when the marketing has leaned too far on Damon’s role) is a clever idea, but Clooney doesn’t fully commit to this narrative track. There are situations outside of Nicky’s POV that occur, leading to a deflated mystery. Maggie is first introduced as somewhat of a progressive liberal, urging nephew Nicky to go play with Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa). She then begins to change once she steps into the abandoned mother role, giving a white woman a break on the groceries, but not Mrs. Mayers (Karimah Westbrook). There’s a finer point to be made of her hypocrisy – one Clooney and Co. never quite land. Religious righteousness and piousness are other topics the filmmakers dig into and, similar to everything else, these bits go nowhere. Visually, Robert Elswit’s cinematography is in dire need of saturated color to better juxtapose the sinister side of suburbia.
There’s something inherently entertaining about seeing Damon in the role of a shifty, slippery anti-hero. That said, it never occurs to Clooney to have much fun with it. Sure, there’s Coen-y kink (a quirk involving a ping-pong paddle), but this only adds to an oddball uptick in tone more than anything. The livelier moments of the picture are when Alexandre Desplat’s score goes full-tilt homage to Bernard Hermann in the third act, amping up the Hitchcockian overtones to Gardner’s storyline.
When you begin thinking Jurj Clooners’ THE NAZI WHO PLAYED YAHTZEE and Mitt Dermon’s MIDNIGHT HOLE would be better features, you know you’ve reached your boiling point with their real cinematic partnership.
SUBURBICON is now playing.