Judging by its pathetic $2.8 million box office performance over the weekend, I’m sure it’s very unlikely that very many of you are planning on seeing Suburbicon. For those that are, I’ll save you some trouble and let you know now that despite the towering star talent involved, Suburbicon is an awkward faceplant in addition to being one of the biggest bombs of the year. As a black comedy, a social satire, an analysis of race relations, take your pick – the film is a bust. And yet, despite all its missteps, Suburbicon is one of the most unusual and fascinating failures of 2017.
There’s no way around it: if you have seen the trailers for this film, you have been lied to. Suburbicon is not a wry comedy about Matt Damon, but an ingenious, if flawed bait-and-switch. Due to the nature of this film’s plot, there is no way to write an in-depth review without hitting spoiler territory. Rather than keeping it brief and at 10,000 feet, I’m going to lay it all out there. If you hate spoilers and want to experience this peculiar exhibition for yourself, I’d stop here, but for those who are short on time and interested in hearing what went wrong, keep reading.
The year is 1959. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) lives and works in the picturesque mid-American community of Suburbicon. One tragic evening, the neighborhood’s idyllic tranquility is disrupted when Gardner’s home is broken into by two burglars, and his crippled wife Rose (Julianne Moore) is murdered in front of his boy Nicky. As the family mourns, Rose’s twin sister (also Moore) moves in, and then things get weird: through the eyes of Nicky, we come to realize that Gardner staged Rose’s murder, and is planning on marrying Margaret and skipping town.
Based on a script written by the Coen brothers in 1986, then updated in part and directed by George Clooney – Suburbicon’s ambitious scheme of shifting protagonists likely impressed as clever on paper, but culminates as bizarre and disconcerting in its completed form. As so often is the case, it’s all in the execution, and Clooney stumbles trying to crack the film’s delicate code. He might later throw his hands up and claim the concept was “unfilmable,” but misguided choices plague the picture enough to confirm there is more to blame here than difficult material.
For starters, the film doesn’t work even before the startling twist halfway through. We are introduced to Gardner and his family in the heat of action the night of the break-in, with no prior characterization or setup to draw us in. Now, this isn’t quite enough to be a breaking point, but a noticeably odd tone and Gardner’s obviously mellow demeanor add up to a faulty opening act. As the story progresses, the film systematically sours every character you are expecting to root for, until you realize the only hero left is an elementary-age boy with very little screen time.
Wait, what in the world is the intention here? Suburbicon represents the Coen brothers toying with a high-concept experimentation of social commentary and their signature style of offbeat humor. Unfortunately, the end product is not funny at all, with Clooney’s handling of the brothers’ envelope-pushing gags and violence materializing as repulsive. The idea of exposing the seedy underlayer of the white middle class has potential, but Clooney squanders it by flagrantly declaring his motives early on, and proceeding to beat a dead horse for two hours.
In another angle of the film, racial tensions are explored by the way of Suburbicon’s first black family moving into the community. This direction plays even worse, with the searingly obvious subtext hitting like a sledgehammer as the town’s new residents are threatened and intimidated before a full-scale riot is staged in front of their house. The intentional absurdity of it all is in poor taste, and the utter lack of realism detracts from the intended message. Along with Nicky, the family serves as the film’s only true heroes, but hardly appear often enough to resonate.
The Coen brothers’ elaborate dismantling of the American dream is daring, to say the least. You can see why it took 30 years for a director to attempt it. Clooney’s clumsy hack job is one uncomfortable ride, yet in retrospect the cunning machinations of the Coen brothers become clearer, and you can’t help but admire the film’s objectives, despite its extensive shortcomings. When a movie like this fails to mesh, it takes a more active viewer to appreciate its stylings. With a rare D- CinemaScore, Suburbicon deserves the rejection, but it’s also worthy of a deeper look.
Paramount Pictures, Black Bear Pictures, Silver Pictures and Smoke House Pictures.
Directed by George Clooney.
Written by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, George Clooney and Grant Heslov.
Starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe and Oscar Isaac.
Released October 27, 2017.