A film like Suburbicon has all the right names to draw you in. It wasn’t hard for me to garner interest in a film with the Coen brothers attached as writers. Moreover, Matt Damon and Julianne Moore, both Academy Award winners and multi-time nominees, are cast as the protagonists. Even George Clooney, who is obviously more notorious for his presence in front of the camera, is no stranger to being at the helm. However, just as the old saying goes: never judge a book by it’s cover; and it couldn’t ring truer in the case of Clooney’s newest directorial feat since 2014’s The Monuments Men.
While Suburbicon is a generally fun film, filled with Coen-esque slapstick violence harkening to a universe similar to that of Fargo, it contains several flaws in the plot and character development. An initial inclination might be to dismiss Clooney as a director, but he has proven himself qualified before—his work on ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ (2005) drew acclaim in the form of an Oscar nomination. Although his directorial tenure seemed to fail him in this venture, the greatest and most noticeable problem lies within the script. The Coen brothers had initially wrote a version of this script in the early 2000s; back then Clooney was still involved, this time attached with a minor role, that of Bud Cooper the insurance investigator, not as director. However, that project never materialized and Clooney and the Coen brothers moved on to other ventures. Several years later, Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov found themselves writing a new script, one about a black family moving into a suburban community in the 50s and receiving subsequent torture from the white residents. Clooney decided to conjoin this new script with the Coen script, and both stories suffered for it.
In this 50’s period piece, the main story follows Gardner Lodge (Damon) and his family as they attempt to recover from a house break-in that results in the death of his wife, Rose (Moore). Just before this tragedy unfolds, we discover that Rose has a twin sister Margaret (also Moore) who is living with her, Gardner and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) in their modest suburban household. After Rose’s death, Margaret is more than comfortable with taking her place in the household and playing the part of Nicky’s mom, hinting at the first signs of chicanery. As she’s settling in—sleeping in Rose’s bed, doing the chores, and dying her hair platinum blonde (Rose’s hair color)—Gardner must go back to work at his 9-5 office job where he entertains a “sorry for your loss” from everyone from his boss to his secretary, all the while seeming not that accepting of the sympathy, or sullen at all for that matter.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Lodge’s backyard, the Myers family is just moving in to their new house. The African American couple and their only child are based on the members of an actual family that became aggressively harassed by their caucasian neighbors upon moving into a Pennsylvanian suburban home in 1957. In the film, Daisy Myers (Karma Westbrook) and her family increasingly become the focal point of the neighborhood’s hatred—starting with an awkward encounter with the mailman when he assumes her to be the housemaid. A disgruntled mob forms outside the residence and each time we return to the Myers household the crowd grows in number and hostility. The mob’s eventual bubble-bursting is sure to remind viewers of the recent events in Charlottesville. However, the characters of the Myers’ are way too undeveloped to make anyone really care about the outcome—Daisy’s husband, William Myers (Leith M. Burke), never has a single line it the entire film.
Eventually, it’s revealed that Rose’s death is connected to some deceptive plotting by Gardner and Margaret, and the film continues to jump back and forth between both story lines. However, the two plots never coalesce to the extent that they make sense being threaded together. Just as well, the character development of Damon’s Gardner and Moore’s Margaret is such that I never wanted them to succeed. Typically, the Coen’s excel at creating unlikeable characters that we’re hesitant to accept but end up routing for anyways (i.e. Fargo and Burn After Reading). However, that also has to do with their direction, and in this case Clooney seems unfit to tell such a story. This is also true for the portion of the script that he and Heslov wrote. Clooney doesn’t seem qualified to speak for this unfairly scrutinized black family of the 50s, and it shows.
The poor storytelling takes away from other technical aspects of the film such as Robert Elswit’s cinematography. His smooth camerawork becomes meaningless because it isn’t implicated by any compelling plot or theme—all it does is glorify the 50s set design, which fetishizes this time period in an effort to trick one into thinking that the story is engaging. On the other hand, Oscar Isaac’s performance as Bud Cooper the insurance investigator remains enthralling despite him being matched with Moore’s uninspiring Margaret for most of his screen time. The latter actually enhanced the former; he was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale environment.
There’s an argument to be made that the lack of connection between both plots makes for a thematic claim about white ignorance. Gardner and Margaret are so wrapped up in their own shit-storm that they fail to recognize obvious racial aggression, even when it’s happening (loudly) not 50 feet from their home. They represent a different type of racism from that time, one not so obvious. One that doesn’t directly attack non-whites, but just doesn’t care about their livelihoods at all. They may even be thankful for the distraction. If that was Clooney’s intent, it wasn’t packaged nicely into a thought-provoking narrative. In any case, I would’ve liked to see a version where the Coen brothers directed the original script they wrote. It seems as though Clooney forced in the Myers plot out of some societal exigence, but some things just can’t be forced.