Suburbicon, the sincerest form of flattery

The Coens never made their mid ’80s script, so why does George Clooney think he can pull it off?


Julianne Moore and Matt Damon in Suburbicon.

2 stars

Every filmmaker’s career is punctuated with the coulda-beens, the shoulda-beens and the close calls. Everyone has an idea that never makes it off the ground, a project that falls victim to bad timing, a script they fall out of love with. For movie buffs, these ideas can be torture — I still kind of wonder what David Gordon Green’s Will Ferrell-starring adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces would’ve looked like. Often, though, the concept might be better than the final product.

Some movies live perfectly as a close call. George Clooney’s latest effort, Suburbicon, is based on a Coen Brothers script from 1985. That’s right after they made Blood Simple but before they made Raising Arizona — back when they only had one colour on their palette, before the world knew exactly what they were capable of. Consequently, Suburbicon contains a lot of elements that you see recycled in subsequent Coen Brothers films: character shadings, turns of phrase, thematic concerns and even some visual design elements. But looking at Suburbicon only begs the question: if the Coens wrote this and decided not to do it, who the fuck ever thought they could?

George Clooney, that’s who. As much as I love Clooney as a performer, I have to say that his output as a director isn’t nearly as impressive. Clooney has the right instincts and an eye for interesting material; he knows how to surround himself with top-flight talent, and yet more or less all of his films disintegrate upon impact. I can’t exactly pinpoint what it is that he does wrong — his films are so different from each other that you can hardly trace a line between any of them. One recurring criticism is that Clooney seems to simply ape the style of the directors he works with, a theory that certainly has some weight considering his long working relationship with the Coens and the way Suburbicon takes a cast-off Coens script and makes a cast-off Coens movie.

Nicky Gardner (Noah Jupe) lives with his father (Matt Damon), his wheelchair-bound mother (Julianne Moore) and his aunt (also Julianne Moore) in the idealized suburb of Suburbicon, a planned community for well-to-do white people in short-sleeved shirts and ties. One night, thugs burst into the Gardner home and tie up Nicky’s parents, looking for “something.” When Nicky wakes up, his father and aunt announce the bad news: his mother has died in the ensuing scuffle. Dad soon takes up with his sister in law secretly, but there may be more to this story than meets the eye of prepubescent Nicky. Meanwhile, an African-American family that has moved in next door to the Gardners has gotten the stiff and intolerant populace of Suburbicon worked up.

Part satire of white-picket-fence perfection and American idealism, part Blood Simple-esque noir thriller and part comment on the Civil Rights era, Suburbicon takes its cues from nearly the entirety of the Coens’ oeuvre. You see The Hudsucker Proxy in the design of Gardner’s vaguely creepy art-deco office; you find Fargo in the skeleton of the noir plot; you find a mix of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink in both the setting and Oscar Isaac’s extended cameo as a fast-talking insurance claims agent who belongs in a better movie. Clooney has appropriated the beats of a Coen film and applied them to the Coens’ words, and yet the resulting film feels nothing like a Coen Brothers movie.

Inconsistency or unevenness of tone is a flaw; the way Suburbicon’s many moveable pieces never come close to fitting together is a fatal one. The murder mystery stuff is the most conventional and gory aspect of the film, but it’s never particularly surprising or dramatically rich. The fact that the film revolves around a child could potentially give the film a Night of the Hunter-esque perspective, but all of the film’s twists are so telegraphed that you suspect they were never meant to be twists in the first place. They feel more like a framework on which to hang the satire, which is either redundant (the ’50s weren’t so perfect after all) or thunderously poorly thought-out (the third act devolves into what is basically a full-out race riot, but it happens almost in the background of the action, more shading in a movie that never really finds its broadlines).

It’s too bad, because some bits of Suburbicon work on paper. It looks great; Clooney manages to conjure up some truly beautiful and haunting images throughout, but they float untethered in the mess of the narrative. Damon plays an uncharacteristic part, but also one whose role in the grand scheme of things seems unclear at best. He’s an inscrutable figure of ’50s fatherhood that the movie apparently seeks to deconstruct, but soon finds another thread to focus on. It’s messy and sketchily drawn, though like so many films that mishandle slippery satire, it remains vaguely interesting throughout, if never truly biting.

Suburbicon has so much to say that it starts saying all of it and trails off on each idea. I wanted to see where Suburbicon was taking me, but I didn’t know I wouldn’t have a ride back when I got there. ■

Suburbicon opens in theatres on Friday, Oct 27. Watch the trailer here: