I normally find the collaboration between the Coen Brothers and George Clooney at least charming, even when the result is lackluster. Their latest film, Suburbicon, however, is so aggressively bad that it was hard to find any redeeming qualities.
Suburbicon is set in the 1950s in Suburbicon, an everytown meant to represent the post-war suburbs that sprang up offering middle class perfection. The setting itself is tired, having been used repeatedly, but then the film goes nowhere new with it, telling a dark story that amounts to a moral that under suburban conformity lies a current of hostility ready to break free. Even Desperate Housewives made that point better than this film does.
In the story, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon); his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore); sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore), and son Nicky (Noah Jupe) are victims of a home invasion during which Rose is killed by an overdose of chloroform. Afterwards, Nicky starts to notice suspicious behavior and the plot devolves into a story of sex and murder that lacks both suspense and a character to care much about or root for.
Meanwhile, the first black family, the Mayers (Kim Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, and Tony Espinosa), move to Suburbicon and the townspeople predictably come unglued, blaming the presence of a black family for the murder of Rose Lodge and taking part in an escalating series of aggressive acts that end with a riot on the Mayers’ front lawn. I kept waiting for this plot to go somewhere interesting or new, but it really seems like its only purpose is to stand as a comparison to the violence at the Lodge house next door. As in the suburban ideal, there’s really betrayal, violence, AND racism. Or, the writing team thought, “You know what we should have in our 1950s film? A desegregation nightmare!” The whole thing is too on-the-nose and trite.
Given what the actors have to work with, it is no surprise that the performances are pretty wooden. The standout is Noah Jupe who has the biggest emotional range as Nicky and the most interesting scenes. Matt Damon’s oscillation between soft suburban husband and conniving bad guy has no real middle ground, so the performance has a couple good scenes, but does not add up to a cohesive character. As Rose/Margaret, Julianne Moore is all over the place. Her performance of Margaret is so mousey and sweet it was hard to take seriously, especially from such a talented actress. Mostly every other character is played like a caricature, which sometimes works in Coen Brothers films, but given how tired the whole setup of this one is, it came across as stale.
Stylistically, it would have made a lot of sense to lean into the film noir period potential of this plot paired with this setting. The film flirts with noir, especially in the score–which might be the best part of the project. In general, however, a darker, more artful approach to the period setting might have taken the edge off the cartoonishness of the movie. Of course, it might have made it seem even more derivative. Great cinematography alone cannot save a bad screenplay.
I wanted to like Suburbicon, but it was so bad I almost couldn’t believe how dissatisfactory it was on every level. It has pieces that on paper should be great: a solid cast, talented writers, murder. They do not add up, however, due largely to how badly the setting plays out and how poorly the different parts of the story play together. It was easily one of the worst movies I have seen all year. I rate it 1 of 5 stars.
Suburbicon was directed by George Clooney and written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney and Grant Heslov. It runs 105 minutes and is rated R for violence, language, and some sexuality.
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