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'Suburbicon' suburbi-can't

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Clooney-helmed film fails to live up to potential

One of the bigger sins a movie can commit is when it refuses to commit. That is, when it tries to be too many things and winds up being none of them.

That’s the biggest of the many problems with “Suburbicon,” a film that, despite checking a lot of the right boxes, simply isn’t very good. The pieces are certainly there for something interesting – George Clooney has displayed some skill in his directorial career; the script is by Joel and Ethan Coen (albeit one dusted off after a decade in a drawer); high-end leads in Matt Damon and Julianne Moore – but they never coalesce into anything particularly engaging. Instead, it’s a film whose scattered storytelling and inconsistent themes come off as ham-handed and obvious rather than sophisticated and compelling.

In the years following World War II, an idyllic planned community called Suburbicon rises up to meet the changing needs of the American middle class. This generically pleasant idyll is held up as a bastion for the values of the time – values that don’t always hold up well to the light of history.

In 1959, young Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe, “That Good Night”) lives in Suburbicon with his financial executive father Gardner (Matt Damon, “The Great Wall”) and his wheelchair-bound mother Rose (Julianne Moore, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”). It’s a fairly typical life, all things considered, but then a pair of events utterly upend his life.

When a black family moves into Suburbicon, the unfortunate racial biases of the time quickly rear their ugly heads. While Nicky quickly makes friends with the family’s son Andy (Tony Espinosa, “The Birth of a Nation”) – initially at the urging of his mother’s twin sister Maggie (also Moore) - the rest of the town makes an effort to turn out and show the Mayers family just how unwelcome they are.

Not long after, Nicky awakes to the impossible – a home invasion in peaceful Suburbicon. While his father assures him that it will be all right, the actions of the sinister criminals lead to the death of Rose, leaving Nicky without a mother … until Maggie steps in to fill the void.

It isn’t long, however, before some questions start being asked about the events that led up to Rose’s death – questions to which Gardner and Maggie don’t have good answers. Nicky is helpless to do anything but watch as the truth about his mother’s death and his father’s character both start making their way to the surface. Plans, schemes and underhanded doings abound.

Meanwhile, as this dark comedy of errors unfolds behind closed doors, the rest of the town continues to marshal its forces in an effort to drive the Mayers family out, descending en masse at all hours of the day and night, shouting and banging and screaming and – eventually – moving toward some much more physical expressions of discontent.

As Suburbicon unravels, the question isn’t just how to put things back together, but whether they’re even worth putting back together at all.

Sounds a bit like two separate movies, doesn’t it? Feels that way when you watch it as well.

“Suburbicon” tries to be too many things. It’s an effort at social satire, an examination of mid-20th century suburban life. It also wants to say something profound about race and the reality of civil rights relations during that tumultuous time. And it’s ALSO shooting to be a darkly comic screwball murder mystery.

And it doesn’t wind up pulling off any of it.

Sure, if you were going to pick someone to bring those elements together in a script, the Coen brothers wouldn’t be a bad choice, but that doesn’t mean what they wrote actually works (though Clooney and regular collaborator Grant Heslov took a pass at it, so it’s tough to say what repairs/damages may have been done). Still, there’s probably a reason Joel and Ethan didn’t make this movie themselves.

Clooney’s aesthetic has always leaned toward the Golden Age of cinema and he’s got a longstanding relationship with the Coens; that combination makes this movie a fairly obvious choice for him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the light touch that allows the Coens to dance with darkness, leaving the film tepid and uneven – not least because the ostensibly parallel racially-charged plot is largely relegated to the background, barely overlapping with the satirical mystery side of things.

Damon is fine as an affectless weirdo, the sort of straight-laced regular guy turned bad that is a Coen specialty. But there’s none of the subtlety that those characters usually sport; it’s a bit on the nose. Ditto Moore (who seems to be having a ball playing twins), though it should be said that she has some strong moments. Jupe is a sad-eyed cipher, existing on the periphery even when he’s the center of attention.

There are a couple of standout performances from the supporting cast. Oscar Isaac absolutely steals a couple of scenes as a shady insurance claims investigator. Gary Basaraba brings a welcome energy to the screen as Nicky’s Uncle Mitch. Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell are appealingly brusque as a pair of menacing thugs. And Karimah Westbrook is sharp and steadfast as the indomitable Mrs. Mayers.

If you tilt your head and squint a little, you can catch a glimpse of the Coen brothers movie “Suburbicon” almost was. Alas, despite having the ingredients for something excellent, Clooney and company failed to execute the recipe. An unfortunate misfire.

[1.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 27 October 2017 10:11

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