Directed by George Clooney. Starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell.
The Plot: It’s the 1950s and the idyllic town of Suburbicon is the model of American domesticity and tranquillity. At least that’s how it appears. The all-white neighbourhood is in complete shock when an African-American family move in. Young Nicky (Noah Jupe) observes this with confusion, not understanding how grown-ups can be so small-minded, including his father Gardner (Matt Damon). His family has bigger concerns. When thugs Sloan (Glenn Fleshler) and Louis (Alex Hassell) break into the house one night, his mother Rose (Julianne Moore) ends up six feet under. Her twin sister Margaret (also Moore) takes over, as if nothing had happened. But then insurance investigator Bud (Oscar Isaac) comes sniffing and suspects foul play…
The Verdict: Suburbicon is a strange beast. It was originally an unproduced script by Joel and Ethan Coen, which George Clooney and his longtime producing partner Grant Heslov dusted off, spruced up and decided to give it their own spin. Maybe it would have been better for all concerned if it had stayed on the shelf gathering dust. If it wasn’t good enough for the Coens to greenlight then that should have been warning enough to Clooney, who knows the Coens all too well. Given his solid directorial choices so far, the end result is a misfire for the usually more observant Clooney.
The problems with the film reveal themselves fairly quickly. It lacks a unifying voice and a lead character to follow. The camera ostensibly favours Nicky early on, with Clooney keeping the camera low, at a child’s eye view. Then it digresses and moves between a number of other characters, with the unlikeable Gardner coming across as far from the All-American father. It’s hard to know who to root for here – even the bad guys come across as being more interesting than the supposedly nice neighbours. The one saving grace is Isaac’s insurance agent, who brings some warmth and personality into an otherwise dull world.
Clooney misjudges the tonal shifts in the film, as a violent domestic incident jars awkwardly with ugly racial prejudice. If he’s trying to make a comment on how violence can exist both inside a family home and inside a community, then he needs to bring it more into focus. He introduces the African-American family early on, but makes no attempt to develop them as characters in their own right. They’re just cyphers. Likewise, if he’s trying to make a comment on the dark underbelly of smalltown America, then David Lynch got there long ago and far more successfully with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
Ultimately, Suburbicon feels like a Coen Bros film but with their trademark black humour strained out until it turns a messy gray. Maybe it’s Clooney and Heslov’s changes to the script or the fact that the Coens weren’t firing on all cylinders when they originally wrote this. Maybe it’s just the fact that this is a mostly dull and humourless film with little to recommend it. It just doesn’t work, not even on a satirical level or as a social commentary. This is a film which doesn’t know what it wants to be.