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Review: Suburbicon

October 27, 2017

By John Corrado

★½ (out of 4)

Based on a decades old screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen that they never produced, which has since been touched up by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Suburbicon is the sort of uneven work that feels like it has had too many hands on it over the years.

After being stranded in various stages of development hell for quite some time, the film has finally come to fruition with George Clooney taking over the directing reigns, and while the results can be fitfully entertaining, the film is also wholly disappointing.  Watching it gives us the feeling that there was a reason why the Coen Brothers themselves never made it a priority to get this to the screen.

The film takes place in the 1950s, and is set in a town called Suburbicon, a place of perfect cookie cutter houses where the only diversity is white people from different states.  Little Nicky (Noah Jupe) is living in this seemingly idyllic world, but his life is turned upside down when his mother (Julianne Moore) is killed in a brutal home invasion, and his father Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) takes up with his aunt Margaret (also Julianne Moore, playing twins), leading the boy to suspect that something fishy is going on.

At the same time, the townsfolk are being rattled by the arrival of the Mayers, the first black family to move into the neighbourhood.  While Nicky befriends their son Andy (Tony Espinosa), Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) are ostracized by the other neighbours because of the colour of their skin, no matter how hard they try to fit in, and the neighbourhood watch association tries to get them kicked out or at the very least pressure them into moving.

While Suburbicon tries to explore some timely themes of racial tensions – and there is a street riot in the last act that holds some eery similarities to the terrifying protests in Charlottesville – the film lacks the depth or weight to properly confront these issues.  The fact that the black characters here are barely developed and are largely relegated to being supporting players within the story also kind of ironically defeats its purpose, and makes the entire film feel hypocritical.  The idea of exposing racial biases and prejudice beneath the shiny surface of 1950s American suburbia is also one that has been done before and better, namely in the underrated and much more powerful Pleasantville.

The film puts these themes of white nationalism and racism on the back burner to instead focus on a tale of murder and insurance claims that has heavy echoes of the Coen Brothers’ first film Blood Simple and their 1996 classic Fargo, one of the many superior films they went on to make after abandoning the script for this one.  The trouble is that these two halves collide with each other and don’t really fit together as smoothly as they should.  The film ends up feeling heavy handed in its approach, and is surprisingly predictable in terms of plot, offering satire without the focus or precision to really work.

Matt Damon and Julianne Moore both deliver somewhat showy performances, but to be fair, the jumbled script doesn’t really give them much to work with beyond chewing up the scenery.  What we are left with is a fitfully entertaining film that is never as clever or deep as it seems to think it is, and the whole thing ends up feeling like overcooked leftovers.  It has some moments, and Oscar Isaac does have fun with his small role as an insurance agent, but the film just never really comes together in the end.

Despite giving Suburbicon a little more lenience when I first saw it, this is one of those disappointing films that I actually liked less the more that I thought about it.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of listening to rich, white Hollywood elitists virtue signalling about equality for 104 minutes, and I don’t need George Clooney to tell me that American suburbia in the 1950s was racist towards black people, especially not in a film that brushes them aside to focus on white characters first and foremost.

A version of this review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.

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