Movie Review: 'Suburbicon' Tells Two Stories, Both of Them Badly | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Movie Review: 'Suburbicon' Tells Two Stories, Both of Them Badly


Published November 1, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 26, 2017 at 11:36 p.m.

A dark crime drama directed by George Clooney, cowritten with Joel and Ethan Coen, and starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore sounds pretty enticing right now. So it's not fun to deliver the news that Suburbicon is a misfire that doesn't work on any level: as crime drama, as black comedy, as social commentary, as passing diversion. For viewers, it's a slog, full of empty stylistic flourishes and preachy points that don't land.

More than anything, the movie's failure comes down to its Frankenstein construction. As Clooney told the Hollywood Reporter in September, he and cowriter Grant Heslov dusted off an old screenplay by the Coens and, inspired by the 2016 presidential campaign, grafted on a second, fact-based story about the violent resistance to racial integration in 1950s suburbia.

Could it have worked? Maybe. But Clooney and co. chose to depict their setting as an archetypal, heavily stylized "Leave It to Beaver" burg, rather than a believable place. The gleefully embraced stereotypes give a jokey quality to everything that happens, from the white townspeople's relentless harassment of Suburbicon's first black family to the violent home invasion that robs struggling businessman Gardner Lodge (Damon) of his wife (Moore).

To the extent that the film has a protagonist (barely), it's Gardner's young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), who suspects something's awry when his Aunt Margaret (also played by Moore) moves in and starts spending quality time in the basement with Dad, making funny noises.

It doesn't take long for the audience, for the kid or for a nosy insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) to figure out that Gardner and Margaret are not as squeaky-clean as their golly-gee mannerisms suggest. But their characters never take on the tragic dimensions of the pathetic evildoers in Fargo, or even FX's "Fargo," in which Kirsten Dunst and Damon look-alike Jesse Plemons played a far more compelling murderous pair. Instead of fleshing out his principals, Clooney falls back on sight gags such as a blood-spattered Damon furiously pedaling a kid's bike.

Or worse: He cuts to a scene of white rioters screaming at the Lodges' African American neighbors or trashing their car. The point is blindingly clear: Suburbicon is scapegoating the outsiders rather than confronting its own evil. The problem is, the two parts don't seem to belong in the same movie. Every time the film cuts from the genuinely disturbing racism subplot back to the paint-by-numbers Lodge story, one wants to scream at its misplaced priorities. It doesn't help that the African American couple (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke) doesn't get even the rudimentary characterization the Lodges do.

No doubt, Clooney had good intentions; his aim, he told the Reporter, was to show that "these issues have not and are not going away until there's an honest reckoning in our country." But what he's produced is a film in which the horrors of real-life racism play second fiddle to a derivative story about white characters. While the former are clearly supposed to shed sinister light on the Lodges' drama, they instead cast its shallow, trivial qualities into stark relief.

Yes, the enclaves of suburbia can harbor hypocrisy, mob mentality and hate: It's a valid point in 2017, but not exactly new. (The classic expression is probably Rod Serling's 1960 "The Twilight Zone" episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.") There are important stories to be told about that phenomenon, but they can't be told as tangential distractions from half-baked crime dramas. Trying to tell two stories, Suburbicon ends up telling none at all.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Suburbicon"