The George Clooney – Coen brother combination has yielded wonderful results in the past. From their collaboration on O Brother, Where Art Thou? to Intolerable Cruelty to Burn After Reading to Hail, Caesar it’s a bevy of riches. The Coen’s have found unique ways to combine Clooney’s movie star charm and knack for physical comedy in a myriad of interesting and funny ways. So, it stands to reason that Clooney, working as Director, with a 30-year old script penned by the Coen’s starring many bankable stars would work just as well, right…RIGHT?
Well not right. Simply put, Suburbicon is one of the wildest misfires from an established talent that I can remember (I didn’t see The Snowman so I suppose I should reserve an ounce of judgment here.) How did an enterprise so promising go sideways so quickly? It’s baffling as the film has every ingredient in place for a dastardly whodunit with that signature Coen snark.
Matt Damon plays Gardner Lodge – a VP of finance at a large building (it’s not clear what he does) in somewhere USA in the mid-1950’s. He lives with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore,) son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and sister-in-law Margaret (Julianne Moore) in Suburbicon – a Norman Rockwell painting of suburbia come to life. A little preamble gives us the Suburbicon rundown – a planned community that was built with you (I’m Uncle Sam pointing at you) in mind. And by you I only mean that if you’re white.
Clooney attempts, and fails in spectacular fashion, to set up two parallel tracks for the film. One follows Gardner as his family’s home is broken into early in the film by a couple of mob-like thugs who kill his wife. As the runtime draws out it’s clear ol’ Gardner has been up to no good – hence the “con” at the end of the title (insert aggressive eye roll.) Meanwhile the first black family in Suburbicon history has moved in next door. The Mayers are a kind family who want nothing more than the lifestyle advertised on every pamphlet – but it’s clear the other residents would prefer otherwise.
What Clooney gets so horribly wrong here is neither of these tracks work. The Mayers are essentially props, being used to show the evils of white people during integration – given no agency of their own. Instead their meant to contrast the increasingly horrible nature of the Lodge’s crimes just next door as every police officer and investigator keeps the increasingly angry mob from the Mayers residence.
The Damon-led caper has decent moments – mostly centering around a brief cameo from Oscar Isaac (who is bad in NOTHING) as the world’s best insurance claim fraud investigator. It’s here and only here that the film achieves even a modicum of Coen-weirdness. Elsewhere it feels like a hollow imitation – complete with the cheery 50’s sitcom score.
Sure, the Coen’s are being given a writing credit here but so are Clooney and his collaborator Grant Heslov. It’s clear where the Coen’s initial script ends and Clooney’s begins and it’s an impossible task to strike that balance. This is a short, mean exceedingly dull film with nearly no redeeming qualities. In that way I suppose it’s a perfect reflection of 1950’s suburban life – I’m sure Mike Pence will love it.