Director: George Clooney
Stars: Matt Damon, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler
Poor George Clooney, he just can’t seem to get a break. Go back 20 years or so and that statement would sound ludicrous; he was the biggest name in Hollywood (whether he wanted to be or not) and could have the pick of projects to star in. But Clooney’s always been a man of steadfast, admirable integrity, and he’s carved out the career he wanted. It just doesn’t seem to be the career anyone else wants.
In truth, this is because he feels like a man of another era. An upstanding star of yesteryear who’d have fit in just swell with the ratpack, or even chased old fashioneds at the bar with Bogie or Karen Morley. His choosy elder-statesman film appearances of late reflect this. He doesn’t chase the limelight. While his efforts behind the camera have been pointedly out of time. And boy have they been hit and miss. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was a solid opener, and his 2005 Oscar hopeful Good Night, And Good Luck was rightly acclaimed as one of the best of the year. But since then things haven’t quite stuck. The Monuments Men was curious and good-willed, but wildly out of step with audiences, and the less said about Leatherheads the better.
All of which makes Suburbicon a mid-stakes proposition for Clooney, salvaged from a discarded Coen Brothers script by the man himself and producer Grant Heslov. The Coens are filmmaking royalty, as much renowned for their witty, cine-literate screenplays as for their directorial flare, but their idiosyncratic work doesn’t often translate when passed into the hands of others (see Gambit). Surely Clooney, a four-time star for the feted Brothers, knows them well enough to make it stick?
The answer is no. It’s recognisably the work of the Coens; the penchant for black comedy, the plot concerning idiots chasing phantom money. One even gets the sense that elements of Suburbicon were salvaged for little moments in the likes of Fargo and The Big Lebowski, but Clooney fumbles the material. There’s an unsettling tonal misfire to the whole affair. It’s played too seriously for the laughs to land. It’s too arch to be taken seriously. Something’s definitely not right in suburbia, but it’s as much behind the camera as in front of it.
Part of the problem is there’s no main character here. Ostensibly that’s supposed to be buttoned-down patriarch Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), but he’s a shell of a man; the film affords us no insights into who he is, what makes him tick. More of the film is seen through the eyes of his son Nicky (Noah Jupe), but only every so often, so we never find a sure footing with him either. One could argue that the whole film, then, is a god’s eye view piece, a true ensemble, but if so it’s so distancing as to remove the sense of drama completely. Suburbicon, one imagines, is a better read than it is a movie.
It’s 1959 and Gardner Lodge (what an abysmal name) lives in the planned community of Suburbicon with his disabled wife, Margaret (Julianne Moore), and their son. The neighbourhood is ruffled when an African-American family move in, citing their arrival as the beginning of the end. Soon after, two thugs (Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell) stage a home invasion at the Lodge residence and Lodge’s wife is a fatal casualty. In the immediate aftermath her twin sister Rose (Moore again, chalking up two thankless roles) moves in and gets cosy with Gard. Both local law enforcement and the insurance company’s claims investigator smell a rat.
Of course, they’re quite right to, and soon everyone’s at each other’s throats for a piece of that insurance money (if it ever pays), and so before you know it there’s nobody to particularly root for other than a 10-year-old kid. But Home Alone this ain’t. Thanks to an intrusive and blustery score from Alexandre Desplat, Suburbicon doesn’t let up aping the movies of its era, but its written from a modern perspective. The script satirises its subject, rather than pays homage to it. And so Clooney ends up in a very confused place. With nothing to connect to, this nest of vipers quickly becomes quite dull.
That is, until Oscar Isaac shows up at the start of the (slightly better) second half. His claims investigator Bud Cooper adds a much-needed shot of charisma, and its the only time that Clooney’s movie relaxes enough to feel like it could be a Coens movie. But alas, it’s too short-lived, and the race to the end is one that the audience can see coming long before the dramatic beats fall. It’s all very neat, but there are no surprises, only the satisfaction of waiting for the inevitable.
As the neighbourhood gets itself into hysterics over its own racism, the real ugly is hiding in plain sight. It’s an inelegantly staged metaphor intended to resonate with ongoing conflicts in America, and I suppose kudos to Clooney – as decent-seeming a man as one can name in the A-list set – for making a point of it here. The unfortunate side effect, however, is that this B-story feels a lot more interesting and urgent than the shaggy-dog story taking up the remaining 90 minutes. It also doesn’t help that the film’s enticing and superbly cut trailer spoils virtually everything about the movie, which plays out essentially like an extended remix of its own advert. Disappointing.