Suburbicon Film Review
Suburbicon (2017) Film Review from the 42nd Annual Toronto International Film Festival, a movie directed by George Clooney, starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, and Noah Jupe. Clooney delivers a tone deaf interpretation of a Coen brothers’ hyper-ironic screenplay about murder and mayhem, and racism, in 1959 suburbia. Suburbicon was a great concept, but mishandled.
From the opening credits, there is a sense of what we are getting into. However, none of it is in the synopsis. Like the good people of “Suburbicon”, we are in for a surprise. Suburbicon was widely described as a film about a man trying to collect on his wife’s life insurance. What we get is a film about one family (white) being ripped apart from the inside while another family (black) is being terrorized from the outside. Imagine the cinematic equivalent of getting hit with the “okie-doke” (look it up!). It felt like watching two very different films that should never have occupied the same space.
There were some really good things happening in Suburbicon, including casting and the dialogue. There were also some massive misses with the execution. Wish there was space to unravel them all, but let us start with some of the good, then we will get to bad.
Damon plays Gardner, a self-defeating “con man” with little experience with criminality. He is actually a delight in this dark piece. Clooney and Damon always have demonstrated a chemistry for cool, and it shows in Suburbicon. Gardner is not all that he seems, and the layers of his character are slowly peeled back to discover his true wickedness. Here is this unassuming suburbanite who just wants things to go right, but they just won’t. So Gardner is a bumbling mess to behold, and Damon is perfect in the role. There were comedic beats throughout that Damon simply owned. There is no denying that some of Suburbicon was funny.
Another pleasant surprise was Julianne Moore as the co-wife villain, Margaret. Moore delivers all of her material in a tone so sweet it makes your teeth ache. There is something sinister going on in Gardner’s home, and Margaret is the whipped icing on the burnt cake. Margaret fumbles the ball many times. So again, we chuckle, we gasp, and we laugh.
We laugh, meanwhile, Suburbicon is reeling from the insertion of new neighbors, the Meyers, a black family made up of a married couple and their son. What do we know about the Meyers? Absolutely nothing. The story of Suburbicon unfolds without so much as entering the black family’s house except by way of a rock shattering a window.
Mrs. Meyers (Karimah Westbrook) speaks maybe four times in polite conversation. Mr. Meyers (Leith M. Burke) says nothing and is barely even seen clearly in most shots. Only his words are mentioned by his son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), who genuinely plays himself – a little boy who likes to play. This family is quiet, simple, and sweet, yet their neighbors in Suburbicon wish to see them removed.
There were some good things happening in Suburbicon. The child thespians, Jupe and Espinosa, were special little sparks in the film. You want to reach out and pluck them out of their horrid circumstance. The film is shot remarkably. You are immersed in competing sounds of murderous struggle and symphony. Scenes are shot with beautiful composition so that your eye is moving on every surface of the screen. That is where the admiration ends. This film loses me with the trick in the beginning, but angers me with how racial issues are shoved into the atmosphere unjustifiably.
Here is where things get bad – and, no, not because the black people moved in next door! The black plight in the Civil Rights era is used as window dressing, literally. There is a scene where Gardner simply closes the drapes to block out the view (and noise) of an angry mob of white people laying siege on the Meyers’ home so he can concentrate on dealing with a hiccup in his insurance scheme. What is funny about that? A black family is being tortured relentlessly, and seriously, the issue is the equivalent of wallpaper. I wish we had seen the film about Suburbicon being integrated, but it did not belong here.
The ultimate let down was when the tears start streaming down the faces of both little boys, and no one is paying attention because, hey, we got jokes. The Coen brothers and Clooney are obviously trying to say something here. The racial divide was a distraction from the bloody spectacle raging in the Gardner home. We watch a neighborhood slowly erupt around the inclusion of a black family, without giving one glance at the genuine horror playing out in the white family’s home. It was probably meant to be poignant, an allegorical comment on the ridiculousness of prejudice. I get it, I really do, but the acerbic wit permeating this film would have been more effective if it was subtler.
American Beauty this tries to be, but fails. Suburbicon is a clumsy mash-up of greed and racism in a clean and cozy world that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. This might be intentional. In that case, Suburbicon is successful. Somehow, though, it dips into distasteful. The film about the Gardner family getting bloody in Suburbicon is special enough without bringing an historically persecuted people into it for no reason but shock and awe. It is like the sequel to A Raisin in the Sun was dropped into a dark comedy about greed, and it simply does not fit. This choice feels gratuitous, and the film suffers for it.
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