In recent years Joel and Ethan Coen have written a number of screenplays for other directors. Gambit, Unbroken, and Bridge of Spies all reached different levels of success in terms of critical and box office acclaim. However none of the directors of those films (Michael Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, and Steven Spielberg) had made films in the vein of the Coen Bros. So it was no surprise that none of these films really sounded Coen Bros.-esque. Then there is Suburbicon.
Suburbicon marks the fourth films in five years the Coen Bros. have written for someone else. This time they’re joined by long time collaborator George Clooney. Having worked on four films together since 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Clooney and the Coen Bros. have forged a strong working relationship. Clooney’s role in each film was always against type. Even when he played the biggest Hollywood star in Hail, Caesar, Clooney’s character was nothing like the man himself. Clooney seemed to understand the comedic sensibilities of the Coen’s. So naturally when it was announced that Clooney would helm the new Coen Bros. script, it all made sense.
Unfortunately Suburbicon is all promise and no follow through.
A peaceful, idyllic, 1950’s community, with affordable homes, meticulous lawns, and mailmen that know everyone’s names, Suburbicon is the perfect place to live. In the promotional video they proudly flaunt their diversity. White people from New York. And white people from Ohio. Unfortunately when the Meyers family move in, the facade is broken. The problem is the Meyers are black. The town immediately tries everything they can to force the family out. In an entirely different plot, two men break into Gardner Lodge’s (Matt Damon) home, take the entire family hostage, and his wife dies.
Matt Damon and Julianne Moore are the two leads (Moore briefly playing twin sisters), and neither deliver. Both are dull, perhaps on purpose. Maybe they are Clooney’s version of boring, white, middle Americans? If that’s the case then it’s a strange one, because it makes your two leads not entertaining. Neither is likeable in any way, with Damon bordering on creepiness. Which is fine if you’re creating an anti-hero, but those characters don’t usually work in comedies. Oscar Isaac shows up for a few brief scenes and tries his best to save this movie, but unfortunately can’t.
The script lacks everything that have made many Coen Bros. films instant classics. Clooney and Grant Heslov added in the Meyers subplot, but even the original story of the Lodge’s is severely underdeveloped. While both stories are supposed to mirror each other, Suburbicon doesn’t tell either effectively. The Meyers barely have lines, so we never understand who they are. Instead of making them good characters, Clooney makes they white town all bad people. It feels like emotional manipulation.
Fargo will be the obvious frame of reference going forward for Suburbicon. Both where that film struck a balance between violence and humour, Suburbicon never finds the same groove. Fargo’s bumbling Jerry Lundegaard is replaced by Suburbicon’s malicious Gardner Lodge. It’s not shocking to see bad people act like bad people.
The film raises interesting questions about society, but never goes any deeper. Suburbicon stands in for the larger American society, the majority white community terrorizing an innocent black family, while ignoring the criminal white family in their mists. However, Suburbicon is all surface and no substance. And at times the message is so blunt it comes across as preachy. Suburbicon is a tonal misfire, visually flat movie that never decides what kind of film it wants to be.