Suburbicon, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, is a lot like suburbia in general. It’s an in-between thing, inspired by other states of being without achieving them. Only in the case of the film, it’s stuck between the bumbling middle-class crimes of the Coen Brothers and Clooney’s own political leanings. It doesn’t do either justice, really, but it almost becomes its own brand new thing. Almost.
On the one hand, there is the story of the Mayers, the first black family to move into one of the pretty pillbox houses of the idyllic titular Suburbicon neighborhood. Their story is inspired by a real-life family, the Myers, who faced racial violence after they moved to a similar suburban utopia in Levittown, PA in 1957. And I can see why Clooney and his writing partner, Grant Heslov, wanted to add that historical layer to the screenplay written by Joel and Ethan Coen (a screenplay written in the ’80s, after Blood Simple). There is a lot of significance to be mined from the juxtaposition of the upstanding black family and the destructively amoral white family next door, set during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. But if the film is trying to address racial injustice and prejudice, it would help to actually invest in the central black characters. Only the barest room is spared for the Mayers in the story, while the bodies start to pile up on the other side of the fence. Mr. Mayers (Leith M. Burke) barely says a word — he’s basically a cipher. And his wife, played by Karimah Westbrook, doesn’t fare much better. Sure, she has more scenes — facing the shock of the mailman or the cruelty of the grocery store owner — and she makes the most of them. There is fire in her eyes as she assesses each situation and calculates the most perfectly dignified response. But ultimately they are props to the story, characters entirely defined by the abuse heaped on them by the community. They’re so symbolic, they may as well have been named the Nobles.
The film’s gravitational center is constantly pulled back to the house behind the Mayers, where the Lodge family lives: patriarch Gardner (Matt Damon), his wheelchair-bound wife Rose and her sister Margaret (both played by Julianne Moore), and young son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Amidst the mid-century modern pastel colors and wood paneling, a different sort of cautionary tale about the American dream is playing out: one of grasping for more than your lot, of selfishness, of the moral superiority that comes with getting away with it. While the whole neighborhood is preoccupied by what the Mayers might be getting up to, two robbers enter the Lodge home, tie the family up, and kill someone. Of course the crime is more than it appears. Of course there are hidden motivations and alliances. The emotional distance of Gardner evolves from a stoic caricature of a ’50s father figure into a man with something to hide. If there was any doubt which part of the script the Coens had a hand in, the arrival of Oscar Isaac’s fast talking insurance claim investigator should resolve the issue.
I never thought I’d say this, but the painfully obvious influence of the Coen Brothers is a detriment here. Not because the skeleton of their story is flawed, because it isn’t. It’s just that the dissonance between their content and Clooney’s style is jarring. Or maybe it’s just jarring to see their content not handled in their own style, because there is nothing precisely wrong with Clooney’s take on the material. The difference is that the Coens populate their intricate plots with complicated characters instead of political messages. Some characters are good and some are bad, but they’re all very human. So seeing these characters and hearing these lines, you’re ready for the darkly comic tone of something like Fargo. And that shadow looms over what Clooney has created, which is a solidly disturbing study of escalating violence, incompetence, greed, and coincidence. It’s a familiar spiral of chaos, but one that feels far more sinister and unrelenting in Clooney’s hands. The characters don’t have the rich inner lives that they do in a Coen Brothers film, but they also seem to represent something more. There is an argument being made with this story. And credit where credit’s due — it all leads to what should go down as one of the finest scenes Matt Damon has ever performed. A scene at a kitchen table, with a scared child and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I’ve never been so glad to see a character take a bite of a sandwich in my life.
The point, of course, is that these vile crimes are happening right under the nose of a community scared stiff that it’s the black people who are ruining the neighborhood. A character is murdered in the street and no one sees… because they’re all demonstrating in front of the Mayers’s house. And while the film cuts between the criminal antics of the Lodge home and the racial conflict playing out on the lawn of the Mayers’, a third kind of story is slowly taking shape: a tale of two boys. Nicky Lodge befriends Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa), sharing that all-American love of baseball and things that slither in the grass. And these kids fucking BRING IT. Seriously, the child actors are delightful to behold. Nicky’s story is more involved, as he’s grappling with the violence unspooling in his own home, but it’s contrasted with the anger Andy witnesses from his window. And yet when they come together, you can feel the brewing story potential of their friendship. Not cloying, necessarily. Not the symbolic “children just accept each other” story that Clooney almost trips into. Just a tale of two boys supporting each other while their own worlds crumble around them. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Suburbicon is that I wanted more of THAT story than either of the other two.
Suburbicon has some great performances, swoon-worthy set design (I dig kiddie western cactus wallpaper and apple green upholstery), and enough twists to keep you engaged. The climax is deeply satisfying in its own way. And if the film’s greatest sin was simply having more potential and big ideas than it could ever fulfill, that wouldn’t be so bad really. Even when it falls on its face, the combination of Clooney plus the Coens works better than — hell, several other movies we’ve reviewed just this month. But it’s hard to forgive the film for ultimately viewing the Mayers the same way their racist neighbors do: as nothing more than the color of their skin. Of all the crimes perpetrated within the film, it’s that conceptual one that sticks with me the most.