SUBURBICON (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated R
(for violence, strong language, and some sexuality)
Released: October 27, 2017
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: George Clooney
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe

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George Clooney is an interesting filmmaker, attracted to very interesting material, so even when he makes a pretty big miscalculation it usually ends up resonating like a minor one.

That’s the case in Suburbicon, a film based on an old unproduced script by Joel and Ethan Coen. Clooney tries to shoehorn in some social relevance to this dark comic tale of greed, lust, and murder, yet does so to absolutely no effect or impact.

Nevertheless, Suburbicon is still a compelling experience, and pops with a sharp tapestry of cinematic craft for good measure.

Set in the late 1950s, “Suburbicon” is the name of an idyllic housing community that personifies the American Dream. Well, for white people at least. But after a house invasion leads to tragedy, a morally corrupt underbelly emerges.

Matt Damon plays Gardner, the new widower, and Julianne Moore is the twin sister-in-law that stays with Gardner and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) to help recover from the trauma. Things turn more ominous, and deadly, as others (including a spot-perfect Oscar Isaac) have their eyes on an insurance payout.

A subplot unfolds in counterpoint, about the neighborhood’s new arrivals: the first black family to live in this residential utopia. The locals want to keep their population as white as their picket fences; protests, rioting, and violence eventually erupt.

The Coen Brothers’ DNA clearly remains in this script’s foundation, but the addition of Civil Rights Era racism (inspired by a real-life event) is entirely of Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov’s thematic gene pool. Topical issues have never been the Coens’ forte; they stick to the universal seven deadly sins.

I’d wager that Clooney and Heslov were on to something by drawing this parallel…which is why it’s surprising how, in the final analysis, it’s so awkwardly crammed in.

And yet that clunky overreach is merely an occasional distraction.

On the main, Clooney has made an intense reflection on nostalgia, and burdens it with a grieving unease. What it has to say isn’t anything new (a.k.a. there are sins hiding beneath our materialistic veneer), but the story allows its dominoes to fall according to unintended consequences, defying the selfish, criminal plans that people have best laid, as Fate and Providence lay in wait to wield their mocking comeuppance.

To Clooney’s credit, and my surprise, Suburbicon doesn’t come off like Coens-lite, or a pale Coen carbon copy. He’s clearly gleaned a lot from his collaboration with those auteur brothers, but his influences are more of the time, not the Coen canon. Clooney’s not straining for quirk; he takes his affection for that bygone era, drapes it in melancholy, then punches it with a pulpy chaser.

The period is richly rendered, too. Clooney and his crew – anchored by cinematographer Robert Elswit (a favorite of Paul Thomas Anderson) – evoke midcentury Americana with vibrant precision, and composer Alexandre Desplat eerily transitions the score from plucky charm to warm sentiment to Hitchcockian tension and back around again.

Clooney brings it all together in an assured aesthetic as he captures, satirizes, and upends the era, not simply facilitating an elegant pastiche. This is one of the better looking, and made, films of the year. Indeed, it’s fitting that, by dividing the title in two, you get the words “Suburb” and “icon”, with the latter half commenting on the former.

The film can’t support its director’s thematic ambitions, but it’s hardly bogged down by them either. Suburbicon is a consistently engaging yarn about the absurdity of immoral hubris (and moral hubris, too, for that matter).

For all its ugliness, the virtues of America win out. The film suggests that our ideals are real, and true, and not just rose-colored nostalgia, incarnated in the most American of past times: out in the backyard, playing catch.

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