On paper, a movie directed by George Clooney, with a script written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and starring Matt Damon and Julian Moore looks like a hit. But after seeing “Suburbicon” you’re left with only disappointment as all these talents couldn’t pull off a good movie.
A major reason for the disappointing outcome is that the movie tries to be a dark satire on suburban culture and a commentary on racism. Yes, that part of the movie will be a surprise, especially if you’ve seen the trailer.
According to a profile on Clooney done recently by The Hollywood Reporter, the Coens originally wrote their script back in the 1990s and approached Clooney to star in it. That story, set in the 1950s, follows a white family looking to be living a carefree life in the suburbs until a home invasion leaves the father unhinged. Recently when Clooney took the project on as something for him to direct — with racial tension bubbling to the surface during Donald Trump’s race for the presidency — he and his writing partner Grant Heslov decided to also include a real-life incident that took place in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957 where a white suburban neighbourhood erupted in violence after an African-American family moved in.
It’s almost embarrassing to imagine that Clooney, Heslov, and others would think these two plot elements could work seamlessly in one movie.
Matt Damon plays the father, Gardner. Julianne Moore plays his wife and also her sister, Margaret. Gardner’s wife dies during the home invasion and it is soon revealed that it was Gardner who was involved in planning the invasion so he can ship his son to boarding school and run off to Aruba with Margaret. While all of this is going on, the African-American family living in the town are dealing with continued racist behaviour from everyone in the neighbourhood.
Beyond the fact that everything going on in the Gardner family plot of the movie is unoriginal, there is very little time given to the plight of the African-American family. Outside of a scene here and there of white angry men yelling at the family from the footpath and neighbouring yards, there’s no scenes with dialogue of the family dealing with the harassment. It’s all done through the brief interaction between the sons of each family.
There are a few parts of the movie that seem to have a Coen brothers feel, from the opening scene that reveals the racial tension in the neighbourhood to a shifty insurance investigator played by Oscar Isaac, but the movie, outside of being very violent, doesn’t have the bite of a Coen story. It’s also a far cry from the originality or style that Clooney has given us in previous directing work like “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
Damon and Moore work hard with the material given, trying desperately to make a few comic moments hit the mark. But mostly they are stuck with really lousy material.
I can’t really say I’m even curious what the Coens’ script on its own would have looked like because the kidnapping aspect of the plot in “Suburbicon” is so close to what happens in “Fargo,” the Coens-directed 1996 classic. I just can’t believe no one went to Clooney at the script stage and told him he was dancing very closely to what one of the Coen brothers’ classics already did. And why the Coens would write something so similar to what they did in “Fargo.” Rewrites may have been the culprit, however.
Regardless, Clooney is so heavy-handed with both the satire and commentary on race, watching “Suburbicon” builds into a frustrating experience.
“Suburbicon” opens in theatres October 27.
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