‘Suburbicon’ Review: Clooney and the Coens Tackle Small-Town America
There are two stories sharing the screen in Suburbicon. Like the characters in the film, they make very poor neighbors.
In one, a planned 1950s community named Suburbicon, which touts itself as a “melting pot of diversity,” is thrown into chaos by the arrival of the Meyers, its first black family. In the other, another family — this one white and almost completely oblivious to the Meyers’ troubles — is torn apart by a terrible crime. The movie cuts back and forth between the two, and their themes speak to one another in some ways, but the competing narratives barely intersect. At times, it seems as if director and co-writer George Clooney made a movie where separate but equal is not only the subtext but also the organizing principle.
The white family is the Lodges, Gardner (Matt Damon) and Rose (Julianne Moore), who’s confined to a wheelchair, along with their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). The sullen Rose also has a more spirited sister named Margaret, also played by Moore in a faux twin gimmick the film never comes close to justifying. One fateful night, a pair of crooks break into the Lodges’ house. In the ensuing struggle, Rose dies. The crime is not what it initially appears to be, though, and Gardner is quickly in over his head, trapped in a plot that involves the mob and a nosy insurance investigator played, briefly but hilariously, by Oscar Isaac.
With a script co-written by the Coen brothers, these scenes often play like a ’50s riff on Fargo, with more than a little Double Indemnity (or maybe The Man Who Wasn’t There) thrown into the mix. Then there are the scenes involving the Meyers, which come from something by Norman Jewison or Stanley Kramer. Suburbicon residents complain about their property values and build tall fences around their houses. Then they gather on the Meyers’ front lawn, singing and screaming at all hours of the night in an attempt to drive them out of town. They’re not racists, they insist, they just moved to Surburbicon to get away from “those people.” They can be a part of the community someday, perhaps, when they prove themselves worthy and responsible. Just not yet.
Of course, the Meyers are law-abiding citizens while, just around the block, the Lodges are the exact opposite — and they’re the ones left to their own deadly devices because of the color of their skin. Recent events have only made Suburbicon’s social commentary more urgent and disturbing (not to mention a lot more plausible). The problem isn’t necessarily with any of these ideas, which could both work in their own self-contained films, but how they fit together — badly, in this case. The caustic crime comedy of Gardner Lodge clashes with the Meyers’ intensely serious civil rights drama. With the bigger-name stars soaking up most of the screentime, Clooney never finds room to transform the Meyers from symbols into fully realized characters. Instead, they mostly suffer in silence. (I’m not sure Mr. Meyers, played by Leith M. Burke, gets a single line of dialogue in the entire film.)
Suburbicon feels like two totally different scripts combined into one — and according to a recent Hollywood Reporter profile of Clooney and the project, that’s exactly what it is. Clooney and his producing and writing partner, Grant Heslov, took an old Coen brothers script (which only featured the white family) and then added the Meyers, based on real incidents that took place when an African-American family moved into Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957. But beyond placing them in the same setting, Clooney never attempts to merge the two into a singular story. They fit together so poorly, in fact, that at a certain point you begin to wonder: Was the overwhelming friction between the two halves deliberate? Clooney and Heslov aren’t dopes. They won Oscars for producing Argo and made films like Good Night, and Good Luck. Is it possible they wanted to turn the tension in this community, and in American communities like Suburbicon in 2017, into an overt onscreen tension?
If that was their goal, it was an audacious one they did not quite achieve. On an even more fundamental level, the perspective of the whole film seems misplaced. Suburbicon would make much more sense from Nicky’s point of view as he gradually awakens to his parents’ and community’s true nature after the discovery of a shocking secret in the wake of his mother’s death. Instead, he nearly vanishes from the movie to focus on Damon’s intense but one-dimensional performance as the squirmy, scheming Gardner.
It’s hard not to admire this film’s ambition. It looks like Clooney and Heslov took a simple and accessible Coens script and deliberately made it weirder, tougher, and less commercial. The Meyers’ battles with their neighbors make Suburbicon more relevant and less effective; the Lodges’ farcical violence trivializes the Meyers’ legitimate horror, and the Meyers’ nightmares saps most of the potential laughs from the bumbling criminals, who seem a lot less funny juxtaposed with angry mobs and race riots. The whole thing is a mess, although sometimes a fascinating one. Here is a film that is practically its own little cinematic civil war.