After a one-two punch of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney seemed to establish himself as an A-list director to match his onscreen talents as one of the last true movie stars. Then as quickly as he asserted his talents, they began to diminish. His last few films as a director have underwhelmed, each seemingly a bigger step backwards for someone who appeared to be so incredibly talented initially. Now Clooney steps behind the camera once again with Suburbicon, a dark comedy scripted in part by Joel and Ethan Coen, and it may very well be Clooney’s biggest misfire as a director yet. It’s possible to see what the Coen Brothers would’ve done with the material in crafting a Fargo-esque yarn about suburban living in the ‘50s, but Clooney struggles immensely with the tone of the film and can’t establish exactly what he’s aiming for along the way, leading to some rather unfortunate and misguided aspects.
The film opens with a colorful history of the neighborhood of Suburbicon, presented like a retro infomercial before taking us to the quiet streets of the quiet little suburb with the mailman joyously ambling along his route. However, this happy little mailman’s day is ruined when he encounters Mrs. Mayers (Karimah Westbrook), the matriarch of a black family that has just moved into the lily-white neighborhood. The fact that Mrs. Mayers, her husband (Leith M. Burke), and young son Andy (Tony Espinosa) sends the small town in a frenzy of rage and panic of even the notion of integration.
You wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that Suburbicon might be about the complicated history of race relations in affluent white neighborhoods not typically associated with the abrasive racism of the Deep South based on how the film opens, but you’d be dead wrong. Oddly, Suburbicon uses these black characters as a sidebar, inconsequential to the central story though it keeps bouncing back to them as if to say “Racism is bad” every now and again, though the film can’t be bothered to present these characters with first names aside from the young son.
Instead, Suburbicon is really about the Lodge Family, a buttoned down white family that live beside the tormented Mayers. Gardner (Matt Damon) is a bespectacled father and husband living with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), who is left in a wheelchair following a car accident years before, and young son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore) is visiting this quiet suburban community. Then this façade of quaint domesticity is shattered when two intruders (Glenn Flesher and Alex Hassell) enter the house one night, drugging the family while robbing them. In the late night attack, Rose is drugged too heavily and dies in the hospital. But things are only starting to get complicated for Gardner, as Margaret moves into the house and Nicky becomes more and more withdrawn following the death of his mother. Then there’s the lingering question as to whether or not the perpetrators of this heinous act will ever face justice. Further complicating matters, Roger (Oscar Isaac), an insurance investigator, is sent to examine the life insurance claim on Rose. Suddenly it seems that Gardner is struggling to keep his head above water with all these tragic and horrific events piling up around him. Of course, things aren’t always what they seem in Suburbicon.
It’s truly remarkable just how lifeless Suburbicon is. The production design of the film is fantastic, and it’s truly fitting that the only thing remarkable about the film is the façade, a glistening sheen of Americana with nothing substantial underneath. Moments of oddball-type humor that would kill in a Coen Brothers film falls flat here, and that’s a big example of Clooney’s struggle with the tone of the film. Clooney keeps his characters at a distance that we’re rarely invited into the inner workings of their minds, which really becomes a hindrance as the tension is supposed to be mounting. Though when Oscar Isaac arrive nearly 2/3rds into the movie, he does inject a bit of life into the flailing film with his natural charisma permeating through the screen. The final act of the film is nothing but escalating mayhem that is obviously the crafting of the Coens’ more demented moralism, and Clooney can’t screw that up even though it seems like he’s really trying to.
Suburbicon is so incredibly disappointing because time and time again it’s visible where the Coens could’ve made this something truly special. I’d love to get a glimpse of their script before it underwent rewrites by Clooney and his partner Grant Heslov. As it stands, Suburbicon is a movie that just falls short in almost every regard, as a dark comedy, as a crime drama, and as a commentary on how black progress in America is greeted with white backlash. It really seems like George Clooney wasn’t sure what kind of movie he was making because he just has no control over the film’s tone which why its racial aspects are so troubling to so many. George Clooney is taking steps backwards as a director and perhaps a major factor in this is his work with Heslov as a screenwriter. Maybe with the right script that electrifying filmmaking style of Confession of a Dangerous Mind will appear once again. But right now, George Clooney is lost in Suburbicon with no way out of his own way.
The latest film from director George Clooney, Suburbicon sees the movie star-turned-director struggling with the tone of the script co-written by the Coen Brothers, leading to an underwhelming drama that features some inexplicably misguided racial commentary.