'Suburbicon' Gets Lost in the Weeds

Julianne Moore, Matt Damon (Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle - © 2017 - Paramount Pictures / IMDB)

If we put our ear close enough to the tracks, we can hear the echoes of a better film, with sporadically droll and incisive dialogue breaking through the white noise.

Primum non nocere (“First, do no harm.")


Rated: R
Director: George Clooney
Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Year: 2017
US Date: 2017-10-27
UK Date: 2017-11-24

This is the fundamental tenet of medicine; an oath sworn by all medical students and the basic standard to which they must be held. For filmmakers, this principle might be modified along the lines, “First, make the audience give a damn."

Not only does Suburbicon fail to capture the audience's attention, it seems determined to be as off-putting as possible. Director George Clooney's new comedy (?) thriller (?) finds dull, unlikeable characters swirling about a predictable plot along the lines of the darkly satirical Fargo. The premise, a (theoretically) stinging indictment of self-absorption amidst a backdrop of cultural upheaval, feels more comfortable as a collection of short stories than a unified feature-length film.

Despite a legion of deficiencies, Suburbicon still manages to feel somewhat provocative, even if that provocation is served from a blender. Clooney (and presumably screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen) were smart enough to uproot 21st Century angst and plant it firmly back in the '50s. Time and distance lend context, as we watch the ancient seeds of racial hatred being sown in Suburbicon.

So what exactly is Suburbicon? It's a Caucasian paradise where white families can escape into a fuzzy cocoon of uniformity and Perry Como music. Children play telephone with tin cans and a string, and the mailman always shares an amusing anecdote when he delivers your mail. The antiseptic cookie cutter houses and white picket fences make Leave It to Beaver look positively disreputable. And to be fair, any kid named 'Beaver' is probably up to no good.

Racism, adultery, and murder don't exist in Suburbicon. All of the husbands, especially Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), are dedicated to their housebound wives, who most certainly aren't hopped up on amphetamines and sleeping pills. Their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) lives a carefree life of baseball and horseplay. Even Gardner's wife (Julianne Moore playing multiple roles), confined to a wheelchair after a mysterious car accident, seems content to pass the hours stringing green beans on her front porch. It's all sickeningly perfect until a bizarre home invasion goes horribly wrong, leaving the Lodge family fractured and terrified in their suddenly vulnerable Suburbicon enclave.

Oh, and the first African American family to brave Suburbicon, the Mayers, just moved in next door, sending the locals into a frenzy.

“We favor integration," a town elder concedes, “but only at such a time that the Negro feels he's ready for it." Ah, there's nothing quite like the hypocritical aroma of racism mixed with condescension.

Sexual repression, racial tension, and horrific violence are just waiting for the right characters and story arcs to deliver the eviscerating satire that America needs right now. That it fails to coalesce into anything more than a mildly amusing trifle is both frustrating and infuriating. We can see what Clooney is trying to do. If we put our ear close enough to the tracks, we can even hear the echoes of a better film, with sporadically droll and incisive dialogue breaking through the white noise.

More persistent is the feeling that these filmmakers, however well-intentioned, were unable to transform their worthwhile premise into something cinematically engaging. This is heady stuff that requires unadulterated gall and at least one central character with whom we can empathize. Suburbicon has neither of these elements. Though it fancies itself a thriller, each twist arrives with tiresome predictability. Yes, a few scenes approach the sort of transformative abandon the story requires, but most of this spectacle is designed to shock rather than inform the characters or themes.

With the possible exception of Oscar Isaac, who shows up late as a sleazy insurance investigator, each of these characters is duller than the next. Damon's Gardner is a cold fish who goes from distant to despicable in about 15 minutes. Clooney is then forced to follow little Nicky, inconceivably filtering this adult story through a child's eyes. None of these characters are textured enough to be interesting, let alone funny. Worse still, Clooney often relies upon obvious sight gags, like Matt Damon awkwardly riding a kid's bicycle, to trick the audience into some easy laughs.

Maddeningly, there are snippets of truth and inspiration peppered throughout Suburbicon. The period details are exquisite, from set design and costumes to the outrageous television remote control that looks like it was stolen from the set of Star Trek. When the Suburbicon residents amass at the Mayers' house, beating drums and singing spirituals, you see the ugliness of humanity juxtaposed with the bravery of a family that refuses to retreat. It's a powerful visual that captures the volatility of modern tensions simmering just below the surface.

But these are just chapters in a book that never works toward a unified message. Right about the time you get invested in Gardner's twisted schemes, the action switches to another storyline. When you feel yourself yearning to learn more about the daily siege at the Mayers' house, you get dragged back into Nicky's world. Even the musical score can't settle down, often providing whimsical accompaniment for scenes obviously envisioned by Clooney to be tense and dangerous.

Suburbicon is Clooney's most ambitious film to date, filled with moral ambiguity and challenging subtext. Though the filmmaking is certainly competent, it lacks the confidence and craftsmanship to transform the material into something compelling. Baffling and frustrating in equal measure, it's difficult to judge who Suburbicon was made for and impossible to imagine who will actually like it.

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