Ambition and success sometimes don’t go hand-in-hand. With a heavyweight pedigree and intellectual heft, George Clooney’s latest, Suburbicon, should (by rights) be up there with his best. Yet this undoubtedly ambitious but deeply flawed film dallies with greatness without ever fully achieving it.
With the backing of the Coen brothers and Clooney’s go-to collaborator George Heslov, and an all-star cast, this has all the elements to be something special. However, some major third-act script problems relegate the film to more of a curiosity then a classic.
Part of the problem with Suburbicon is that it tries to shoe-horn three disparate elements into one movie. It’s a dark comedy (a la Fargo), a social commentary (along the lines of Pleasantville) and a noir thriller (with shades of Double Indemnity) all at the same time. The thing is, the film is so stuffed with these rather conflicting ideas, none of them gets any room to breathe.
The Suburbicon of the title is one of those “planned communities” that sprang up after World War II. It’s the early 1950s when the film opens. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), an accountant, is safely ensconced in Suburbicon with his family. His wife Rose (Julianne Moore) has sadly been crippled in a car accident. Rose’s sister Margaret (also Moore) has moved in to help out Rose and the couple’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe). But two events collide to shake up Gardner’s peaceful existence. First the Mayers, a black family, move in next door. While Gardner seems uninterested in them, the otherwise entirely white community is soon seething. Then the family is subjected to a terrifying home invasion by two thugs (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) – with tragic results.
The Coen brothers, in collaboration with Clooney and Heslov, penned the script. It lets the twin storylines play out largely independently. Anger (mostly by white men) over the mere presence of the Mayers barely intersects at all with Gardner’s problems. Perhaps that’s the point – racism blinds the community to the extent they can’t even see what’s going on right next door. Meanwhile, behind Gardner’s carefully tended lawn, unspeakable things are happening.
But the lack of any interplay between the two leaves Suburbicon feeling like two shorter films spliced together. That feeling is exacerbated in the final third, when the whole thing falls apart. Apparently bereft of ideas by that point, the film resorts to cheap resolutions, dissipating much of its credibility.
But despite those problems, the film has some very fine attributes. Even though the plot elements don’t gel, they’re interesting ideas on their own. The parallel climactic sequences are gripping. The set design and costuming is excellent, clearly evoking the film’s time and place. And the cast are excellent.
Probably the stand-out is Julianne Moore. Playing the twin sisters, she gives a performance full of gesture and nuance. Her interaction in a key scene with Oscar Isaac (as an insurance adjuster) is electrifying. Matt Damon imbues just the right measure of quiet desperation as Gardner. That desperation quietly builds as the film progresses. Young Noah Jupe excels as the lynchpin of the movie, Gardner’s son Nicky. Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell are aptly odious as the two thugs.
Suburbicon is (to use an Americanism) Clooney swinging for the fences. While he doesn’t hit a home run, I’d much rather watch something with this kind of ambition and bravado than something trite and safe. So while it’s not perfect, Suburbicon is nonetheless worth a look.
Director: George Clooney
Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac
Release Date: 26 October 2017
Rated: MA 15+
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television