You know when you eat two things for dinner that you really love, and the flavors mix, and while it isn’t quite unpleasant, it doesn’t taste nearly as good as you’d hoped they would? That’s a pretty good analogy for George Clooney’s Suburbicon. Written many years ago by the Coen Brothers, and rewritten by Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov, Suburbicon a breezy, entertaining film that draws from the history of noir for great fun, but becomes too torn between its two creators’ vision to ever become truly remarkable. It’s a fun film that could have been so much more with a little more effort put into the rewrites and the editing.
It’s the late 1950s, and the perfect American experiment is being conducted in a small town known as Suburbicon. An isolated suburb made up of people from all over the United States, Suburbicon is considered the perfect American town. However, things are upended when the home of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is invaded, and the entire family is assaulted, including his wife Rose and her twin Margaret (both Julianne Moore) and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Things go wrong and Rose winds up dead. The town is horrified by the crime, but as Nicky soon learns, there may be more to the case than meets the eye. Not that the town is paying much attention to it – they’re caught up with the new additions to the neighborhood, a family of three African-Americans.
Here’s the issue facing this movie: there are two great films here that should not have been mixed together. The original Coen Brother script is a classic noir. It’s a strong throwback to the glory days of Double Indemntiy and Kiss Me Deadly, having move in common with them than with their breakout hit Blood Simple (which they wrote simultaneously with Suburbicon). It’s a really great thriller, with the added twist of being told from the point of view of the child, Nicky. It gives us the beats we’ve come to expect from noir, including the shady characters, the sordid plots of sex and murder, and the determined detective. What’s more, it has that added joy of the Coens’ nonsensically horrific humor. A scene involving a ping-pong paddle and some wonderful pieces of wordplay stand out as some of the most Coen-esque details in their wonderfully sprawling plot. Meanwhile, George Clooney has crafted a second plot for the townspeople of Suburbicon, involving the slowly growing racism that comes from a town of “average” Americans. Watching the growing animosity towards a family for the simple act of moving to a “white” neighborhood is a shocking plot element, and it feels particularly haunting as we finish up not one, but two different marches by white nationalist Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia. However, just because something’s topical doesn’t mean something’s right for the project. And while it is a fascinating story that deserved to be told, it doesn’t match at all to the story at hand. It almost feels like Clooney had two great films that he wanted to release, but he would only be paid for one, so he just jammed them together and hoped they’d fit. I won’t go as far as to say that the jamming together of these projects made a bad movie – while it suffers from the mixture, it still is highly entertaining. It’s just that Clooney has ruined what could have been two home runs with his own cockiness and editing failures.
The other major issue that Clooney runs into is that I’m not entirely sure he understands the Coens’ sense of humor. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the movie is funny. At times, it’s very funny. It’s just that Clooney chooses to reveal this humor in a much more broad, slapsticky sort of way. The Coen Brothers are great at comedy because they don’t write for comedy. They write real situations dragged out to their extreme conclusion, mixed with black humor for good measure. Think the juxtaposition of the Minnesota Nice with the Woodchipper, or the excessiveness of a series of misadventures just because someone pissed on your rug. These scenarios are hilarious because they underplay the comedy for the audience, choosing instead to focus on the mundane nature of it all. Clooney, meanwhile, makes the joke as obvious as possible. While it’s funny to see Matt Damon ride away from an explosion on a child’s Schwinn bicycle, it just feels blunt in a way the Coens never would. Let me put it this way: the Coens are tenderizing the meat of comedy by gently massaging it, while Clooney is banging on it with a meat tenderizer. Both work, it’s just that one is much better for the flavor than the other.
However, that doesn’t make Clooney a bad director. Indeed, while he made a lot of decision that hindered this film’s success, he also made several that made the film shine. The scenic design of this film is absolutely flawless, form the production design to the cinematography. Each shot feels like a Norman Rockwell painting in terms of symmetry, color, and framing. It’s a cool, calm production that puts great effort into the tiniest details. One of my favorite touches is that if you look in the background of every scene inside someone’s office, they have the exact same set-up. Sure, the pictures are different, but they are in the exact same spot with the exact same order as everyone else’s. It’s a subtle detail that satirizes the conformity of the era to great effect. Clooney may struggle when it comes to writing, but I will never fault him for his ability to stage an incredibly intelligent shot. He has an eye for these kinds of details, and it makes the film a visual treasure to behold.
There’s one aspect of the film I really want to talk about, and that’s Oscar Isaac as Bud Cooper. Now, in the classic noir archetype, there always needs to be one detective who’s smarter than everyone else. They either serve as the film’s hero or serve as the antagonist to the film’s villainous lead. A classic example of the latter is Edward G. Robinson’s all-time great performance in Double Indemnity. Isaac also belongs in the second category, and while he only appears in the film for a short amount of time (five minutes, tops), he absolutely runs away with the entire film. My God, it’s like watching another movie altogether when he shows up, spouting facts, wooing the audience, and all around having the time of his life. He plays this role the way Robinson played Keyes, or when Peter Falk played Columbo. Hell, this entire script could be slightly rewritten, and Isaac could walk away with his first Oscar in a Columbo movie. Somebody should do that. I’m getting off track a bit here, but I want to reiterate: Isaac’s five-minute scene as Bud Cooper is honestly worth the price of admission.
As for the rest of the cast, they are varying degrees of decent and overacting. For example, Julianne Moore’s homage to Kim Novak and Barbara Stanwyck is pretty solid throughout, while Matt Damon feels a bit miscast as the nebbish Gardner. However, in Damon’s defense, when he has something to munch on, he sells the hell out of it. Young Noah Jupe is decent in the role of Nicky, really killing some of his big scenes, but never shining in the way breakout child stars do. I enjoyed the performances of Gary Basaraba as Uncle Mitch and Alex Hassell as one of the two thugs, but I felt that Glenn Fleshler, the other thug, overacted the entire time. And finally, in the film’s biggest flaw, Karimah Westbrook kills it as Mrs. Mayers, the African-American woman who has moved to Suburbicon with her family, but her role never amounts to more than a plot point. It is a disservice to both her and the film, and it speaks to the argument that they should have cut it from the film if they weren’t going to truly explore it.
Suburbicon isn’t a bad film, or at least it’s not as bad as the Rotten Tomatoes score would lead you to believe. It’s entertaining throughout, and if you’re someone who truly loves old noir films, you’ll enjoy this. It’s also trying for some depth, and I find the effort to do so commendable. However, it’s frustrating because the two great wholes never work together, and it keeps the film from being great. And it’s so much more disappointing when a great film only ends up being “fine.” It’s definitely worth a rental, and deserving of praise for its many successes, but when your biggest hitter decides to bunt in the bottom of the ninth, you can’t help but feel like wanting more.