‘Suburbicon’: Clooney subs for the Coens with strangely misfired murder comedy
The “Suburbicon” of the title is a 1950s housing development and community in sprawling suburbia that’s practically a closed socioeconomic ecosystem, like the towering apartment complex in Ben Wheatley’s near-futuristic “High Rise” (2015). There, the elite lived at the penthouse level while the servicing class made do in the shabby confines below; here it’s a mass-marketed commercial ideal where all are on an equal plane and essentially have the same humble abode. It’s an endless sea of sameness, a sleepy Ozzie & Harriet existence, until the Mayers, an African-American family, buy a lot. The all-white town meeting that erupts to discuss “what to do” casts uneasy shades of the recent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Oddly and wastefully (if not irresponsibly, given the issues of race today), the black folk next door become a mere distraction for the plot’s main thread of self-interest, murder and money – and it’s a silly one, at that. Based on a Coen brothers script and directed by George Clooney, who seems to lose more footing as director with each outing, the film angles to be a dark comedy in the vein of “Miller’s Crossing” and “Fargo” but lacks the wit and whimsy of either. What it is, is a beat-up, welded-together jalopy, angry and mean in its quest for recognition, but that’s a hard feat when the only likable characters in your crew are a family under duress for their skin color and a young boy (Noah Jupe), who’s not sure if his aunt and father have inside information on a home invasion that accidentally killed his crippled mother. (Trust me, I’m not giving anything away. There’s little in the film that will surprise you).
For such a stylishly tepid affair (it does look great) Clooney has assembled an impressive cast. Dad, Gardner Lodge, is played by a portly Matt Damon, and mom and her sister are played by the ravishing Julianne Moore, who gets a scene where she gets to sip iced tea with herself. The film even boasts ubiquitous scene stealer Oscar Isaac, who crops up as a fast-talking insurance adjuster. He’s in it so briefly it almost seems criminal, considering he’s the liveliest thing in the film besides a pair of bungling hit men (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell), who seem ripped lazily from an early draft of “Fargo.”
The dislikability of Damon’s “Mad Man” exec and Moore’s sexy Margaret – there’s no redeemable upside to the couple, who’ll do just about anything for a buck – is the film’s main problem. Sure Willam H. Macy’s back-biting weasel in “Fargo” had a similar construct, but with enough nuance and soul that you could empathize with his plight. Also, so much is made of Gardner and his dilemma, when the whole town has assembled to riot and protest next door, outside the Mayers’ home. It amazes when Gardner closes the curtains on the great social injustice and never pays it another nod.
The best and only touching scenes of the film occur when Gardner’s son, Nicky (Jupe) plays ball with the Mayers’ son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), or when his mom (a graceful and dignified Karimah Westbrook) tries to buy milk and toilet paper at the local supermarket and a manager informs her that the price of each has gone up to $20 (crazy now, even crazier back in the 1950s).
How did something with so much talent go so wrong? For starters, the Coens likely had their reasons for not putting the script into production; and Clooney, so infallible with early efforts “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002) and “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005), has been way off his game since “Leatherheads” (2008) and “The Ides of March” (2011). In recent years, the affable, eternal bachelor has settled down and become a family man, and seemingly a deep, caring one – which perplexes, as the biggest hole in the heart of “Suburbicon” is its lack of sense of family.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.