I think it’s fair to say that George Clooney is something of a hit ‘n miss director, and that his directorial efforts make for an overall abstract body of work, whereby the aptitude of the artist remains ambiguous. From praise-worthy titles like Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March, to questionable bosh such as Leatherheads and The Monuments Men, Clooney’s directorial efforts are a patchwork of ideas that lack consistency, and were he any other director I’d argue that it is unlikely we’d have gotten this far into his repertoire.
Suburbicon is Clooney’s sixth outing as helmer and it is his clunkiest offering to date. Opening with a classic 1950’s land-development commercial, the film establishes its period effectively and spreads a wholesome gloss across the screen. We are taken back to “simpler times” when neighbourhoods were full of families and safe places to live. Kids played in yards and the postman knew everyone’s name. And then, within the blink of an eye, we are reminded that what may have been “simpler times” for some, were awful and oppressive times for others.
An African-American family move next door to the Lodge family, throwing the idyllic community into chaos. Caught in the grips of fear, with the stability of their white suburban sanctum at risk, the neighbourhood bands together to harass, torment and drive their unwanted invaders out of town. Meanwhile, the Lodge family are having problems of their own when a violent home invasion leads to murder. Matt Damon plays Gardner Lodge, whose wife is murdered, and with the ongoing intimidation of her killers at large, he finds himself in a predicament that puts the rest of his family in danger should he identify the culprits. And so begins a dark, twisted and comical story of blackmail, deceit and social injustice.
Suburbicon was written by the Coen brothers, who reportedly penned the script 30 years ago, and while it certainly has the veneer of a Coens film, it lacks the depth of character that they typically examine so meticulously. Instead, with Clooney’s clumsy direction, their script feels as if they were trying to imitate themselves while unintentionally lampooning what they do. Where the tone and production design of Suburbicon is nicely done, with its sterile urban sprawl and pristinely aligned houses, the story is otherwise a messy, convoluted and uninspired muddle.
The consecutive stories of the two neighbouring families are established as though they ought to correlate; yet one only serves as a decoy for the other. Such is the weight and ugliness of the African-American family’s ordeal, that their plight goes beyond being a social commentary and serves no purpose other than facilitating the comical charade of the white family. Sure, we might witness the volatile racism of that era and draw parallels to contemporary society, but without any substantial resolution, or justice, it seems to be a wasted opportunity and a lousy pretext for satire. And if, indeed, the script was written 30 years ago, I would be curious to know how the context was shaped in its original form…
To add further insult to injury, Matt Damon is sorely miscast. His meek and mild demeanour and white-collar costume design is all too similar to his character in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant. Furthermore, he lacks conviction and delivers a miscalculated performance that maintains a persistent sense of misalignment. Thankfully, the supporting cast is strong, with Julianne Moore giving a particularly delightful duel-performance as wife and twin-sister-in-law. She has honed her 1950’s housewife persona with award-nominated performances in Far From Heaven, The Hours and A Single Man, and so her turn in Suburbicon is a sure thing. Oscar Isaac shows up for an extended cameo and graces the screen with his reliable charm (if only he hung around for longer), but it’s young Noah Jupe who gives a show-stealing performance as the son who’s far more switched on to the unfolding events than most of the adults around him.
Simply put, Suburbicon is an unfortunate waste of talent. It is an uneven thriller, with flimsy social commentary and confused comedy. The Coens were right to pass the directorial buck.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★☆☆☆☆