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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review: SUBURBICON proves that sometimes scripts are shelved for a reason

In 1986, the Coen Brothers were riding high, having just released their neo-noir classic Blood Simple, right after that came Raising Arizona. Both films would sort of act as a compass rose duo for the two broadly defined strands of their output: hyper surreal (often black) comedy and darker dramas - there's a lot of space in between, but you get the point. But just ahead of starting production on that Nic Cage standout, the brothers began work on the script for Suburbicon: a 50's set, as the title would indicate, suburban comedic thriller that holds a pretty strong similarity in basic premise to one of their later, great successes.

While it's fun to play, "what if?" regarding Suburbicon as a possible second Coens feature, it's pretty clear the Joel and Ethan knew that it wasn't going to work and popped it into a desk drawer and went about their business, resurrecting the most interesting element of that script for a home far more suited for it. Yet somehow that didn't stop regular Coens player, George Clooney, from getting his hands on it as his latest directing vehicle. Having been in some form of development for over 12 years, you can tell Clooney was trying to find an angle to bring the material back to life and perhaps even make it "relevant", particularly given how derivative its core story already is. Sad to say, this is just a case of it being better to leave well enough alone. Or perhaps Clooney has just forgotten how to direct. This is also possible.

Suburbicon centers on Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), the head of a four-person household that includes his wife and her twin sister (Julianne Moore) and their young son (Noah Jupe). They reside in a planned residential community that champions its diversity (in a very satirically pitched, but oddly dissonant ad, right as the movie begins), but is basically made up of rows and rows of white families. In the middle of the night, a pair of thugs wreck havoc - and Rose, Gardner's paraplegic wife, dies as a result of their attack. From there, the family tries to recover, but the young Nicky gets a hint that things aren't all what they seem. And soon, a dark scheme begins to unravel before his eyes.

At the same time, a black family, the Meyers (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, Tony Espinosa) are moving into the house next door, and this racial integration is causing a wave of indignation and anger among Suburbicon's residents. Interspersing real-life documentary footage throughout the film via radio broadcasts heard by its various characters as they go about their day-to-day life and news reports on the Lodge family tv, Clooney aims to build tension around the tribulations this family faces, particularly as their neighbors become increasingly hostile; even to the point of standing outside of their home day and night, beating bass drums and screaming obscenities.

The question is, what exactly do these two plots have to do with one another? Very little. Even if you try squint to make some kind of thematic connection between the chaos of the Lodge home vs. the daily abuse hurled at the Meyers, who are simply trying to live normal lives...these are two puzzle pieces that simply do not fit together. There's some cursory crossover via a briefly defined friendship between the two sons of these families, but beyond that? Nada. And because of the amount of time spent on both stories and how they cut between one another, both suffer pretty badly, the Meyers side moreso. It's clear that this was the big addition that Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov added to the bones of the old Coens script, and while I think this kind of social commentary can be quite laudible when thoroughly focused, it's really not clear at all what Clooney was even trying to say. Something along the lines of racism being bad in the 50's and perhaps being representative of racial struggles as they still exist today? But really, the underpinnings being striven for are so milquetoast, and so generally agreeable on their surface, it's hard to really get a firm grasp what he was going for here.

And because Clooney was trying his darndest to turn this into an important film with a capital I, the actual meat of the story ends up never really coming together as satisfyingly as one would like. He's clearly never comfortable with the Coens brand of humor, despite having starred in a fair number of their more popular comedies, and he's unable to tee anything off with the characters as written. One of the keys to their comedic gold is the performances themselves, and that's really where Clooney just fails to entice anything beyond what's on the page itself. You may have seen Matt Damon riding around on a tricycle, and it's a decent, if try-hard trailer moment. It never works in the context of the film at all, relying on the visual to sell the joke. And Surburbicon is littered with these kind of confused, tonally mishmashed sequences that really just don't hold together at all. If the filmmaker himself isn't sure what he's trying to do with the material, the chances the actors are going to know any better are probably slim.

And these performers do struggle, Damon looks absolutely lost, trying to get a sense of Gardner, playing him at perhaps the most boring straight man imaginable. He starts to show a tiny flash of inspiration right at the very end, but it's too late. Julianne Moore tries her best in a dual (almost triple) role, but her task is so thankless and underwritten that she can hardly be blamed. The villains are cartoon characters, but in the two-dimensional fashion, with nary a Carl Showalter to be found. And The Meyers are barely characters at all, again just serving as plot functionaries. Really, the only worthwhile moments of the film are provided by Jupe, whose wide eyed-innocence and knowing looks provide the only energy within the film's leads. Oscar Isaac pops in for two quick scenes as a crafty claims agent, and that's really where Suburbicon finally springs to some form of life. You can even tell Moore is relishing her big scene with him far more than anything else she's having to essay here.

The fact of the matter is, I've long argued that the Coen movies that star Clooney are largely my least favorite. So you can imagine how that bad luck streak would carry over to when he's attempting to pick through their scraps. 

It's better than The Monuments Men at least, but pretty much everything is.

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