I like George Clooney as an actor, but even more as a director; the previous films of his I’ve seen (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck, The Ides of March) have all had a kind of mannered, interesting stye in the same neighborhood as Soderbergh or the Coen brothers. So I was excited at the prospect of him tackling an old script by the latter, written in 1986 between the landmarks Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, curious what kind of spin he might put on their surreal, dark wit. The results are… decidedly mixed. Suburbicon is full of interesting ideas that never quite fully develop or properly gel, engaging in performance and style but ultimately shallower than its obvious ambitions.
The story, set ambiguously in the 1950s, is primarily centered on Nicky (Noah Jupe), preteen resident of the ideal planned community of Suburbicon. Nicky is roused one night by his father, Gardener Lodge (Matt Damon), during a home invasion by two men (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler) that results in the death of the boy’s invalid mother Rose (Julianne Moore). Nicky knows something about that night is a bit hinky, especially after Rose’s identical twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore) moves in, and he’s not the only one; his uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) and insurance investigator Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) also suspect something’s up. Most of the town, however, is distracted by an increasingly violent protest of the Mayers (Leith M Burke, Karimah Westbrook, and Tony Espinoza), neighbors of the Lodge’s and the first black family in the neighborhood.
One gets the sense that this is a move that really wants to say something, but therein lies its primary weakness. It never really makes a concrete connection between the xenophobia and violence the Mayers are experiencing and the more home-grown variety of terror at the Lodges’, which makes the Mayer part of the story feel tacked on and underdeveloped. What’s left is a fairly predictable thriller that kind of feels like a “darkness hiding in perfect suburbia” story, which might have worked in 1986–David Lynch’s Blue Velvet from that year runs with the same idea–but by now has become cliche and insufficient. In short, it’s kind of hard to suss out the point, which makes the film feel hollow.
As an exercise in style it’s pretty fascinating, though. The tone is arch enough that it feels like it should be a comedy, but I’m not convinced it’s actually trying to be. It’s absurd, certainly, in that cartoonish way Coen films often are–Damon frantically pedaling away from a crime scene on an undersized Schwinn, Moore crying as she crushes lethal pills with a rolling pin, the pair of them caught in flagrante with a ping pong paddle–but absurd doesn’t necessarily mean funny. I couldn’t quite decide how to feel about it as I watched it, and honestly that’s what kept my interest as the plot hit all its marks. It’s an interesting use of Matt Damon, essentially a less-nuanced version of William H. Macy’s role in Fargo, but he pulls it off. Moore feels a bit on autopilot but her autopilot suits the film. Isaac’s serpentine investigator is, as usual, a highlight. But everyone seems committed to the stylized nature of the piece with the exception of Jute, Espinoza, Westbrook and, to the extent he can with no dialog that I can recall, Burke. Their performances seemed somehow (not ignorant but) more innocent of the falseness of the rest of it, the kind of touch that makes it hard for me to dismiss the movie completely.
I can see this film being the subject of a revisionist analysis sort of article in a few years (if I’m being honest, I’m already writing it in my head) but that’s not the same thing as saying it’s a good movie. Whatever interpretations or insights might be lying underneath the surface, they’re not forefront enough to really matter in the moment of impact. So for those interested in experiencing the work of the talent involved, it ends up a lesser outing that’s rife with potential but doesn’t quite land. For someone just in it for a good flick, go into this one with tempered expectations and there’s a lot to like, but don’t expect anything of real significance even if it feels like it wants you to.