review by ellen pentony
Set in 1959, Suburbicon looks beyond the white picket fence and into the dysfunctional homes of suburban America, focusing on prejudice, power, and greed amongst the white middle class.
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s clear that director George Clooney is attempting to channel their parodic, tongue and cheek style, but the film feels more like a blunt pastiche rather than a homage. The film follows multiple protagonists, focusing primarily on Nicky Lodge (Noah Dupe), his father, Gardner (Matt Damon), mother and aunt Maggie (both played by Julianne Moore).
A robbery sets the story in motion, with two mobsters breaking into the Lodge family home, killing Nicky’s mother in the process. The remainder of the film follows Nicky and Gardner through their grieving process. Taking up the majority of the first half of the film, the narrative becomes slow and awkward to watch, with nothing major happening to drive the story forward. As a result, the film loses its way, failing to produce the exaggerated scenarios and characterizations needed to establish it as a satire; Clooney knows what he wants to create but doesn’t know how to deliver. The dialogue is stilted and forced, and scenes linger a second too long, and although classified as a “crime-comedy”, the humour falls flat throughout the first half.
The film finally picks up pace in the second act, when Clooney decides on a darker tone, and stops trying to humanize his characters. It becomes clear that everyone in this community is utterly corrupt, even the insurance guy who wants a cut of the fraud he’s investigating.
Oscar Isaac steals the show in this scene, producing a darkly comic performance which was so desperately needed in the opening act. His altercation with Aunt Maggie sets the remaining screwball sequence of violence in motion. Here, we see glimpses of what could have been, with car crashes, Tarantino-esque comic violence and utter chaos unfolding at every turn.
But, when it seems like Clooney has finally settled on his tone, in the midst of this chaos we see an angry white mob attack the only African-American family in the town, the Meyers. This narrative is the most confusing, and further complicates the overall interpretation of the film. At the beginning of the film, a voiceover parodies the “diversity” of the neighbourhood, showing families from different states across America – who are all white. When the Meyers move in, it seems like Clooney will delve into the racial dynamics of 1950s America. This storyline falls short due to a complete lack of development. It interrupts the primary storyline rather than complementing it. The two stories, despite Clooney’s best efforts to connect them, seem disjointed. The film’s final sequence is therefore jarring, the comical downfall of the characters is juxtaposed with the image of a burning car, and a confederate flag being thrown through a smashed window.
While the Coen brothers’ retro aesthetic is pristine, and the finale is entertaining, ultimately, Suburbicon is a disappointing, forgettable film with a confused, mismatched tone and lacklustre opening that prevents it from being the clever satire it promised to be.