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Suburbicon | Movie Review

Quick Take: At its core, Suburbicon is a dark comedic thriller that somehow misses its mark. It’s brilliantly cast and obscenely peppy in the best way possible. But it’s hindered by slow-moving action, an inexplicable disconnect from its surroundings, and suffers from way too many wasted opportunities.

The disconnect seriously undermines the impact of a plot that’s equal parts hilarious and disturbing. It’s a beautifully rendered film that absolutely wastes a damn near perfect set-up to something that could’ve been great but instead, feels like that brief moment between psychotic breaks. I don’t know if it needs to pray about it or just seek help.

Grade:  C

The Details: The buzz around Suburbicon had me reluctantly intrigued. The Coen Brothers, George Clooney, and Grant Heslov all have unique approaches to storytelling and skill with taking unique story arcs into the ominous without the entire film feeling plodding or too somber.

I’m always open to a film with a plot that attempts to set itself in a historical context constructed with a sense of unapologetic realism. It tends to lead to a more immersive viewing experience. Plus, it looked like Matt Damon would be playing against his current character type; more The Talented Mr. Ripley duality and less Jason Bourne blunt instrument.

But, I look out the corner of my eye (it’s Pavlovian at this point) at white folk-particularly “allies” -proclaiming their project has a story that addresses race relations. The final product rarely ever seems to amount to more than some self-serving, congratulatory homage to their own moral profundity. Without spoiling, it’s safe to say that Clooney and Heslov wanted to set a story in the heart of a fictitious Levittown-style suburb. If you don’t know your history, now’s the time to hit the Googles and learn some uncomfortable things.

I won’t lie, I fully expected Suburbicon to pis me off. But I like dark comedies and subversive mysteries; so I reserved judgment and put my butt in a seat.

Suburbicon opens with an infomercial-like voice-over introducing the ridiculously perfect 1950s love child of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Frank Oz’s Stepford Wives that is this housing development called Suburbicon. These images are what come to mind-for far more folks than will ever admit it-when some people hear the word or visualize what “American” means. Even the opening sequence of the postman walking his neighborhood beat chatting up the locals is picture perfect.

In this sense, both the script and Clooney’s direction hit all the right notes. The cinematography and production design creates a vibe that unmistakably evokes an era gone by with all its imperfections blended away. You can almost hear Donna Reed humming in the distance. The tone and coded speech, are all spot on. This is literally a “White Flight” middle classers’ wet dream made manifest.

But almost immediately, the idyllic peace of this White Folk Mecca is broken. A Black family’s moved into the neighborhood. This segues into some rather well-constructed moments where anti-blackness and anti-integration sentiment are on display. It should look and feel familiar-at least to folks who don’t lie to themselves about this country’s roots-to everyone watching, regardless of which side of the line the one falls.

Left to right: Steve Monroe as Mailman Henry and Karimah Westbrook as Mrs. Mayers

Parallel to all the anti-integration madness slowly seeping through the cracks of this wonderland of white folk whiting, is a mystery set off with a home invasion. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), upstanding citizen, his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her sister Margaret (Julianne Moore) and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) are held hostage in their living room during a robbery. But this pair of would-be robbers seem more interested in humiliating Gardner and asking inappropriate questions than stealing everything in sight. Something about the whole situation is just off and when Rose ends up being the robbery’s only fatality, things just keep getting stranger.  

I quickly realized this film wasn’t going to be anything like I’d been led to expect. They’d actually established a premise set in a town at the beginnings of integration and white flight in a way that was coated in saccharine sweetness yet unmistakably tainted with the insidiousness that is white supremacy and the protectionist mindset. It was richly detailed, seamlessly presented with just the right wink-and-a-nod with “Leave it to Beaver” style of dialogue and visuals. And then there this murder mystery all set to unravel right-next-door.  Despite the less than ideal pacing heading into the end of the first act, I got excited.

All the actors were on their game. These are less than likable people. And even before you knew exactly why you shouldn’t like them, you aren’t feeling the love. Julianne Moore’s performance is particularly good because you absolutely come away with the sense that this is a woman who’s never once questioned her right to do exactly as she pleases regardless of the effect on anyone around her. And you just know that Matt Damon’s Gardner Lodge is hiding a grimy little toad behind those horn rim glasses.  

The set-up and lead-in were so smooth, I almost fell for the okie doke, almost.

For all the overt setup and revelations about how the people living in Suburbicon feel about Blacks moving into the neighborhood, none of the adults in this film substantively interact with one another. The entire scenario built around the integration narrative are handled through bombastic snapshots of citizens acting against the Mayers’ family and the implication Clooney and crew assume you’ll draw from there. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil but I’ve got some feelings about this -ish.

This decision struck me all levels of wrong because it needlessly divides your attention. Clooney had repeated chances to “integrate” his narrative themes. He chooses just as often not to. He could’ve easily used time wasted on dead ends and red herrings to weave the events happening between these two households together in a way that would’ve given weight to his narrative and carried the overall story forward in a more encompassing way.

I mean come on, there’s a murderer on the loose but everyone in town’s paying more attention and using all its energy trying to harass this family out of town…

There were so many ways this could’ve all blended that complete and utter hypocrisy into unraveling exactly what’s happening behind the closed doors of the newly widowed Gardner Lodge’s home.

Instead, Suburbicon makes no effort to blend these parallel stories beyond the thin ass relationship between the two young boys Nicky Lodge and Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa). And between these two, there’s only one real moment where the greater story arc comes into play. Andy gives his new best (only) friend advice on how to handle his fears over the increasingly batshit-crazy happenings inside his home.

Left to right: Noah Jupe as Nicky and Tony Espinosa as Andy Mayers

Without that nexus, the narrative built around Matt Damon is hardly inspiring and doesn’t even become that interesting until Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) the insurance investigator shows up asking questions. And it has to be said, there isn’t nearly enough of Isaac’s character in this film. He was dynamic, entertaining and energizing. There’s a whole story arc here you’re teased with that would’ve done wonders for adding to the supence and shaking up the predictable. 

Oscar Isaac as Bud Cooper

I think this murder mystery narrative is intended to be deliberately obvious and predictable so you focus on the juxtaposition of the image of perfection and normalcy these white people are steady trying to project as it crumbles beneath the weight of their real personalities peaking through.

But Clooney doesn’t give enough time to any of the elements in this narrative that would’ve really raised it beyond the ordinary. It makes me wonder if he even touched the Coen Brother portion of the script in rewrites at all.

The scenes involving the tensions surrounding the Mayers’ moving into the neighborhood are used exclusively as segues and filler between the unfolding f*ckery happening next door. They’re given a lot of screen time that ultimately leads nowhere.

This entire narrative is no more than a prop; the presence of the Mayers has no greater purpose in this film than to be the visible “blight” that peels back the pretty veneer and exposes the noxiousness bubbling beneath the surface of all these Norman Rockwell wannabe mo*fos.

It’s a decision that’s disrespectful as all hell and just thinking about it makes me want to shake Clooney and Heslov for doing it and the Coen Brothers for not pointing it out, until at least one of them needs a neck brace, permanently. I’m tired of Black people being NPCs particularly in movies built on their backs. I’m tired of the offhand, self-serving way white folks are only willing to look at race relations on film if they see it as a good gimmick to serve their own ends.

Karimah Westbrook’s performance as Mrs. Mayers is, for all its brevity, magnetic. Her stoicism, togetherness, and dignity in the face of all these hateful and spineless white folk is the absolute personification of Black Excellence. She could’ve brought far more to the greater story and kept this narrative from going stale or feeling predictable had she and her family been more than animated scenery.  

Karimah Westbrook as Mrs. Mayers

This entire film could’ve had depth and nuance and been told with serious flair. All the pieces and elements are here. Suburbicon could’ve been an amazing dark comedy with some serious political satire woven through but instead, it’s just a mediocre comedic thriller. The core story based on the Coen’s original idea needed a greater context and more layers because it’s an unrelentingly predictable tale that’s only as good as the actors bringing it to life and the backdrop it plays out against. All this films best moments arise when the small details came together to drive the story forward. There weren’t nearly enough of those moments because of the complete disconnect between the film’s major narrative themes and characters.

I wouldn’t be so angry if I didn’t know Clooney’s turning the role of the Mayers in Suburbicon into just a cheap plot device is going to further obliterate the truth to be found in how those townspeople were depicted. They didn’t just dream up the Mayers or how these white folks responded to their presence. This really happened. It’s all lifted directly from US history. Hell, the “petition” one person reads out loud early in the film contains words taken right from the mouth of an actual Levittown’s resident almost verbatim.

I wouldn’t be so angry if I didn’t feel like it could’ve been done. I wouldn’t be so angry if it didn’t feel like the satire and thriller were simply one overlayed one on top of the other with no further thought given to either; thereby sending a message that’s subliminally pro-segregation.

I didn’t hate Suburbicon. I laughed plenty and enjoy every performance from this supremely talented cast. Although, I do wish it had at least taken me longer to figure out how the murder mystery would turn out.  

Suburbicon is what happens when you forget that the only people surprised by the messed up shit white folk get up to are, other white folk.  

That blind spot is the reason Clooney and crew didn’t realize their film didn’t gel. That blind spot is exactly how the plight and trials of black people continue to be used to prop up the mediocre then blamed when that phoned-in effort gets called out for missing the mark.

Suburbicon reminds me of something my mom always said when I tried to justify a half-assed effort: “woulda, coulda, shoulda…but you didn’t.”

Clooney inadvertently made a film that showcases white privilege on so many levels I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the subject of some student thesis paper in African-American studies.

This shit is so white, it is funny.

And that ending montage and dialogue? Yeah, you can miss me with that tidy little wrap up-just in case you missed the message of the narrative I neglected-sequence all the way around.

Overall Rating: 2.5 out of 5


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