The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering what a fan-made re-creation of a film might look like if it was actually made with a budget similar to or greater than the original product, then Suburbicon might actually be a cinematic experiment of some interest. It’s just hard to figure out what purpose it might serve otherwise.
George Clooney, directing a script that was written by Joel and Ethan Coen and then reworked by Clooney and Grant Heslov, clearly knows how to bring a Coen-esque touch to a Coen-esque plot. The story of a suburban family man, Gardner (Matt Damon), who finds himself mired in an increasingly complicated and grisly plot after his wife is murdered, has all of the hallmarks – and even some of the same plot details – as Coens classics like Fargo and Blood Simple. There’s a collection of bizarre ne’er do wells getting up to nefarious things in otherwise seemingly ideal locales and saying strange but eminently quotable things. The washed-out 1950s suburban setting marred by violence and blood also feels a lot like a Coens film. It even sounds like one, with the snappy dialogue between henchmen or cops clipping along at a very familiar pace and intonation.
And perhaps that’s all Clooney should have attempted with Suburbicon. It might not be particularly original, but at least it works. It’s much harder to figure out what the value and purpose of Clooney and Heslov’s additions to the story are. While all of this suburban Fargo dark comedy is playing out in one ticky tacky box in the town of Suburbicon, you see the Meyers family (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke), who are black, move into the neighborhood. Aside from Gardner’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe), who becomes friends with the new boy across the yard, the white locals don’t respond well to the slight diversification of their community and lash out at what they see as a direct threat to their safe and proper society. It starts simply, with blithely muttered racial epithets and askance glances, but quickly escalates into violence as the Suburbicon citizens start forcing the Meyers out of local institutions and lurking outside of their house every night.
You can probably determine the moral of the story already. And no, it doesn’t really grow more complex or less clumsy as it unfolds onscreen. In parts, at least, it’s more entertaining than reading the above synopsis. Damon makes a good flustered villain, and the ever-reliable Julianne Moore, who pulls double duty as Gardner’s murdered wife and her scheming sister, delivers good turns in both capacities. Oscar Isaac is absolutely genius as a suspicious insurance agent, breathing all sorts of new life into the nebbish mid-century businessman Coen archetype. There’s an impressively Chekhovian use of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at one point in the proceedings. But Suburbicon’s intermittent strengths aren’t enough to carry it, let alone make up for its ham-fisted attempts at saying something of greater importance.
The problem isn’t necessarily that Suburbicon is too obvious, especially not when many of the news reports that play in the background of various scenes feature actual interviews from white people who objected to black people moving into their communities during the same time period. Or that it’s a fictional story. But the stifling nature and sinister underbelly of white suburban and small-town life has already been extensively explored everywhere from the works of David Lynch, to other Coens offerings, to even this writer’s personal teenage diary. Suburbicon simply has nothing new to offer on that front.
The hypocritical violence of whites who are the actual threat to the “civilized” society they use to justify themselves warrants more discussion, but it also needs something more sophisticated and humanizing than whatever goes on throughout Suburbicon. In their rush to portray the Meyers’ plight at the hands of racist whites – all of which is going on while the community ignores white-on-white violence – Clooney and Heslov forget to make them flesh-and-blood characters. They are objects to their onscreen neighbors, but also to their creators. They exist only to receive (and sometimes bravely endure) the racist behavior of the other characters. They have no lives or motives or characteristics outside of this; Mr. and Mrs. Meyers aren’t even granted first names in the film.
Delivered with all of the well-meaning passion, hopped-up self-importance, and flailing execution of a dude who has just discovered that sexism is real and has decided to write a viral blog post about it – or perhaps a sweeping Oscar acceptance speech that hails the community’s progressive stance on race while failing to mention that the first black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, had to accept her honor in a segregated venue – Suburbicon is a mess of good intentions and lacking execution. It doesn’t work on a purely aesthetic level or as a political statement, and the combination of the two goes together about as well as a mid-level Coens comedy and a morality play about racism masquerading as a thesis.