A film with a snazzy title; George Clooney as director and co-writer (along with the Coen Bros and Grant Heslov), and starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaacs. What could possibly go wrong? Apparently a great deal.
Suburbicon is a 1950’s American small town – pristine on every level. Perfectly manicured lawns, exquisite paintworks and varnished woodworks. It’s an allegory for the privileged all-white residents. Life is perfect. Or is it? When an African-American family – the Mayers – move in, the virtuous façade erupts to reveal a monstrous racist underbelly.
But this is just a subplot. The main plot surrounds the Mayers’ neighbour – the Lodge family. Matt Damon is Gardner Lodge, husband to wheelchair bound Rose (Julianne Moore), father to Nicky (Noah Jupe). Margaret (also played by Moore) is Rose’s identical twin sister.
Shortly after the Mayers landed in Suburbicon, two armed robbers break into the Lodges’ house. The robbers kill Rose with an overdose of chloroform. After that life is never the same again. Aunt Margaret moves in but Noah pines for his mother. At the same time Noah is the only white person who shows any friendship towards the Mayers. He befriends their young son who’s about his age, Andy (Tony Espinosa).
At a police parade of the Lodges’ home invasion suspects, Noah is left outside while his father and aunt go in to identify the suspects. Unbeknownst to the adults, the little boy sneaks into the room and is confused and horrified when the adults claim that the suspects are not on the line while he can see the same men who broke into their home. To make matters worse, a hapless police officer turns on the light in the room and the killers get to see that the boy has seen them.
Noah tries to question his father’s lying but he’s shut down. The killers begin to threaten his father regarding the boy, and also to demand unpaid fees for the killing. Noah catches his father and aunt in flagrante delicto. Next door, a racial riot is in progress. Majority of the residents have turned on the black family. They stage increasingly inflammatory protests on their doorstep. It is the 1950’s. America is in the throes of racial segregation upheaval. But in Clooney’s film, the African-American family barely gets a look in. In fact, the father doesn’t utter a word throughout.
Matt Damon is grave and dispiriting as the Episcopalian patriarch. In the first act his performance is so staid we look to Moore for relief, but her devious character is a simpleton lacking the menace to spark the film into life.
We wait for the Mayers’ and Lodges’ lives to intersect at some point in this film but it never happens. But loads of things are happening that we can’t make sense of. It’s as if Clooney is grasping at anything to rescue this attempt at racially tinged, satirical, historical and psychological neo-noir crime thriller.
When Oscar Isaacs arrives as the smarmy, yet suave insurance agent Bud Cooper he injects an edge that is lacking. It’s a lifeline, however, very short lived. His presence also sparks Gardner to life. Their rivalry leads to a must-see death by fireplace poker.
At the end of this film you’ll be left scratching your head, wondering what exactly you’ve just seen. And there are films like that that we’re fond of. Suburbicon does not make that grade.
Sydney Pollack once told a screenwriter that no matter how many films you make it never gets easier. With the wealth of talents on Suburbicon managing to muck this one up we’re inclined to agree with him.