'Suburbicon': Film Review | Venice 2017

We've sniffed the rot beneath these manicured lawns too many times before.
10/27/2017

George Clooney directs Matt Damon and Julianne Moore as a couple in over their heads with a dastardly plan in this caustic satire co-written by the Coen brothers.

It's almost inevitable, while watching Suburbicon, that you find yourself wondering about the movie Joel and Ethan Coen might have made of it, had they gone ahead with their original script. Perhaps an anarchic comedy in the constantly surprising vein of Raising Arizona? Or a daring mix of grotesque violence and deadpan humor along the lines of Fargo? In the hands of director George Clooney, the material has some nasty charms, for sure. But it pushes too hard from the start, then steadily goes off the rails from dark to dyspeptic, lacking the originality, bite or tonal consistency to make up for dipping from a very familiar James M. Cain well. Its bigger problem is a timely subplot about virulent racism among white Americans that comes off as a mishandled afterthought.

Paramount's best bet is to push the novelty of Matt Damon and Julianne Moore playing characters who appear on the surface to be regular 1950s archetypes — the dependable breadwinner and the sweet-as-pie homemaker, respectively — before being exposed as amoral schemers when their bad decisions unravel. But there's been a long history of more incisive movies about the poisonous soul lurking beneath the reassuring cookie-cutter order of suburban America, and this one ultimately brings little that's fresh.

The script, credited to the Coens, along with Clooney and his writer-producer partner Grant Heslov, borrows from the playbook of classic noir narratives like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, shifting the intrigue to a housing development clearly modeled on Levittown, Pennsylvania. A cute opening sequence, styled as a video promo for potential residents, touts Suburbicon as "a melting pot of diversity," drawing folks from places as far apart as New York, Ohio and Mississippi. But every happy family in the kitschy illustrations is lily-white, signaling a restrictive environment, even if it's not declared as such.

The cheery mailman gets a shock when he knocks on the door of a new resident and discovers that the African-American woman he assumes to be the maid is actually the lady of the house, Mrs. Meyers (Karimah Westbrook). That alarm instantly spreads, sparking a rabid town hall meeting at which homeowners protest the perceived violation of their community and the inevitable drop in property values. While it's not subtle, their appropriation of liberal language for their cause gets the point across: "We demand our civil rights to live where we want and with who we want. And with God's help, we will overcome."

That plot thread is based on the real family who first broke the color barrier in Levittown. But having been established, their story then gets nudged to the back burner, and mostly remains there even as the harassment of the Meyers by an angry white mob escalates into a full-on race riot. Only their young son Andy (Tony Espinosa) gets significant screen time, with his persecuted parents remaining unheard as they dig in and try to remain impervious to the hate.

Across the backyard, the main action is happening in the home of Gardner Lodge (Damon), his wife Rose (Moore) and their preteen son Nicky (Noah Jupe), who quickly gets over his nervousness and accepts Andy as a friend. Rose, a frail blonde, has been in a wheelchair and bitter since a car accident in which her husband was at the wheel. That leaves her twin sister Margaret (Moore again) — a regular presence in the house, who is identical aside from being a brunette — to represent the perky ideal of serenely smiling ‘50s womanhood. Anyone who's ever seen a movie will smell adultery and sibling betrayal a mile off.

Violence abruptly intrudes during a home invasion by two sleazy thugs (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell), who knock out the family with chloroform. Nicky wakes up to learn that his mother has died, and Aunt Maggie moves in right after the funeral, ostensibly to provide stability in the wake of tragedy. Before you can say "Kim Novak," Margaret has hit the beauty shop and switched to blonde, but the deceptions soon start unraveling.

Clooney has assembled a cast of highly capable actors, so there’s a certain enjoyment in watching the leads scheme and squirm even as the plotting gets messy. While Damon's character comes off as a poor relation to William H. Macy's hapless criminal in Fargo, Moore has some fun moments as Margaret reveals her cold self-interest to increasingly uneasy Nicky. But all this antic mayhem about ordinary folks taking to crime with fatal incompetence can't outrun its staleness.

The most interesting angle remains the mounting panic of Nicky, in a terrific performance from Jupe, as he pieces together the truth while wrestling with the preconditioned instinct to trust his father. Other than that, the high point is the appearance of a wonderfully crafty Oscar Isaac as an insurance claim investigator with a nose for fraud. The two scenes in which Isaac's character "goes fishing," pulling the rug out from under first Margaret and then Gardner, inject a shot of vitality, danger and diabolical cleverness into the movie that's gone way too soon.

As hasty plans go awry and bodies pile up, the chaos starts to feel forced and the tension evaporates. Worse, a sour smugness creeps into the movie that's intensified by the distracted treatment of the very real horror being experienced by the Meyers family. While recent events in Charlottesville initially lend weight to this subplot, Clooney never manages to integrate it satisfyingly into the main narrative. On a purely logical level, it makes no sense that while inflamed community members maintain a round-the-clock harassment campaign designed to drive out the unwelcome element, the ugly noise of their hatred — all that's missing are the pitchforks — is almost never heard in the Lodge home, just a stone's throw away. The racial violence spirals out of control, but fizzles just as quickly.

Along with his cast, Clooney has assembled a pro team behind the camera. Cinematographer Robert Elswit's widescreen visuals maximize the light-and-dark contrast between sunny suburbia and its diseased heart, while production and costume designers James D. Bissell and Jenny Eagan, respectively, supply plenty of period eye candy. And Alexandre Desplat's score works overtime, shifting from sleepy cocktail jazz into needling agitation before pulling out all the stops and going the full Bernard Herrmann.

However, Suburbicon is just too obvious in its satirical depiction of the dubious morality and social inequality behind the squeaky-clean façade of postwar American life, though it's watchable enough, and a distinct improvement for Clooney on his last directorial outing, The Monuments Men. The actor got an enormous assist his first time out as director with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, via a lunatic rollercoaster of a script from Charlie Kaufman. This latest effort is a far cry from that inspiration, or from the subsequent Good Night, and Good Luck, set in the same period, which had much more to say about the America of that time.

Production companies: Dark Castle Entertainment, Smokehouse Pictures, Black Bear Pictures, Bloom
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell, Gary Basaraba, Jack Conley, Karimah Westbrook, Tony Espinosa, Leith Burke
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriters: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney, Teddy Schwarzman
Executive producers: Joel Silver, Hal Sadoff, Ethan Erwin, Barbara A. Hall, Daniel Steinman
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: James D. Bissell
Costume designer: Jenny Eagan
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Casting: Ellen Chenoweth
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)

Rated R, 103 minutes

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