Actors turned directors are often quite successful affairs, with just this year Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, “Lady Bird,” receiving a lot of major talk for awards come Winter. Other successful outings include Sofia Coppola, Angelina Jolie, Ron Howard, Lake Bell and George Clooney, among others. Clooney, returning for his 6th feature film, is seeking to wash the bitter taste of his last film, “The Monument’s Men” from people’s memory. While “The Monument’s Men” wasn’t particularly offensive, it was a very stilted and awkward take on World War II from an otherwise solid actor turned director. “Suburbicon” is a bit of a strange step for the director, as it’s the first film of his in his directorial repertoire in which he does not star, as well as mixing a bevy of different genres and styles together into a strange hybrid film of murder, race and conspiracy.
And hardly a single thing in it works.
Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is a man living a seemingly perfect, made-for-TV life in Suburbicon, a 1950s suburb that’s flawless from every angle. When home intruders attack Gardner and his family, including his son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), his mother, Rose (Julianne Moore) and her sister, Margaret (also played by Julianne Moore), the intruders leave Garnder, Nicky and Margaret incapacitated, while killing Rose in the process. Reeling from the loss of his wife, Gardner and his family must protect themselves from the intruders returning, as well as the implications from the intruder’s motives in the first place. All the while, Suburbicon is reeling from the first black family moving into the neighborhood, prompting major civil unrest from the white residents.
If it sounds like “Suburbicon” is a hodgepodge of a million different elements, you would be correct. I’m sure you’re also wondering how they all intertwine and fit together thematically. Spoiler alert: they don’t. Everything in “Suburbicon” is so terribly disjointed and messy that it feels like at three separate films pushed into one, leaving each feeling hollow and inconsequential. The social satire of the ’50s is lost in the dark subject matter of the film, which is inversely blunted by the film’s lighthearted attitude, while the racial sub-plot of the film feels entirely forced and meaningless to the message Clooney was attempting to convey. I can understand the whole “People fear what they don’t know, even when it’s their neighbors who they should fear” message, but to shoehorn such a heavy and important topic into a film as lighthearted and satirical as “Suburbicon” tries to be is pretty lazy and irresponsible for a film trying to have some sort of important message at its core.
The inclusion of the storyline of the black family moving into Suburbicon was a decent attempt at reminding audiences of the politicized nature of the ’50s, breaking the stereotype of the perfect white family archetype shown in shows like “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” and “I Love Lucy,” but surely there are ways to make use of the political unrest at the time than soullessly injecting the film with a completely separate storyline that not only doesn’t serve, but actively undermines the impact of the main storyline. Having a family be plagued by murder and deception is enough to paint the picture of a less-than-perfect utopia.
Because of this, however stylishly shot “Suburbicon” is, its aesthetic is jilted and messy in the end. When the film takes its straightforward, “I Love Lucy”-like aesthetic, it’s incredibly pleasing to look at, but it’s when the film begins to tread into its thriller or its civil rights drama territory, the film’s look begins to look weirdly out of place and borderline inappropriate. Attempting to mesh three genres with three different looks and to keep it cohesive is a daunting task, and it’s something “Suburbicon” unfortunately fails to do.
Performances are okay across the board, but none are anywhere near the best they’ve been, and in fact, Damon might give one of the most underwhelming performances of his career. With the amount of both comedic and dramatic heft the film has, Damon seems borderline disinterested in the material. He’s flat, unlikable and is so uncharismatic, he hardly does anything remarkable enough to even remember his character’s name come the credits. Moore and Oscar Isaac, while nowhere near their potential, do give some decent performances in the film. These are two actors who could read material out of a phone book and it would still be interesting, so the fact that they’re “decent” here isn’t much of an accomplishment. Neither are given ample time to flesh out their characters that by all means, could hold some funny heft, but simply don’t.
And there’s the biggest shame in “Suburbicon,” its entire construction comes from not only competent, but highly respected sources. The screenplay, written by not only Clooney and Grant Heslov, also was penned by legendary filmmakers Joel & Ethan Coen, arguably two of the finest screenwriters still in the game. It leads me to wonder at which step “Suburbicon” went wrong, as this is not simply an underwhelming film, but that of an unmitigated disaster that falters at nearly everything it does. With a crew so incredibly talented, one must wonder how something like this came along and was passed off as release-worthy.
I didn’t go into “Suburbicon” with high expectations, but I didn’t expect the complete and utter mess the final product of the film ended up being. This is a film that must have intrinsic issues with its production, because I find it hard to believe such an accomplished team could produce something so disjointed and sloppy. “Suburbicon” feels like three separate movies combined into one, and neither of them are well-constructed separate movies, leading to the inevitable train collision that begins to form in its final, jumbled finale. It goes in a lot of different directions I didn’t expect the film to, and it takes a lot of different twists one might not see coming, each of which I disliked more than the last. Nothing in “Suburbicon” felt whole, nor did it ever flow in a way that felt even remotely organic. “Suburbicon” could quite possibly be the “worst case scenario” option for the Hollywood prestige pictures that pervade the fall season. Even then, “Suburbicon” can’t even be enjoyably bad.
Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Gary Basabara, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell, and Oscar Isaac.
Runtime: 104 minutes
Rating: R for violence, language and some sexuality.
Paramount Pictures and Black Bear Pictures present, a Dark Castle Entertainment • Smokehouse Pictures production, “Suburbicon”