clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

George Clooney’s Suburbicon is an indictment of white privilege wrapped in a Coens crime comedy

New, 16 comments

George Clooney has something to say, but even a Coen brothers script can’t give him the nuance he needs

Photo: TIFF

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review was originally posted from the Toronto International Film Festival, and has been reposted to coincide with the film’s broad theatrical release.

As a director, George Clooney has a track record of making films that are exceptionally crafted, even if they haven’t all ended up being great at the end of the day. Movies like Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March demonstrate his impressive skills as a storyteller, while other efforts like Leatherheads and The Monuments Men have fumbled their attempts at comedy and action. But his latest film, Suburbicon, seems as close as you can get to a sure-fire cinematic success: a script that originated with Joel and Ethan Coen, a cast that includes Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, and a darkly comedic tone that seems right in line with Clooney’s own sensibilities.

But Clooney has never minced words about his political views, and he uses Suburbicon to step into the larger discussion about racism, and to chip away at the stubborn romanticization of 1950s America. Set in a suburb named Suburbicon, the film is at first glance about idyllic people living idyllic lives. But those perfectly manicured lawns and cheery neighborhood greetings are ultimately just a cover for the deceptions and evils hiding within.

Suburbicon is at its best when it locks into a familiar groove and delivers on one of its many Coen-esque movie moments. The original script was written by the Coen brothers back in the 1980s, and that DNA shines through with every tongue-in-cheek setup and comedic misdirect. But it’s a scattered film, making too many vital points at once. By neglecting to bring them together into one single story, Clooney undercuts them all.

What’s the genre?

It’s a comedic crime thriller — though one that briefly masquerades as a drama just to get the ball rolling. Those familiar with the Coen brothers’ 1996 classic Fargo will find it immediately recognizable; it’s just set in 1950s suburbia.

What’s it about?

Moronic criminals committing moronic crimes. It starts with Matt Damon’s Gardner Lodge, a father in a 1950s-catalog community called Suburbicon. It’s a seemingly American utopia, full of identical homes, broad laws, and smiling families. But one night, two men break into Gardner’s home and tie up his son Nicky (Noah Jupe), his wife (Julianne Moore), and his wife’s identical twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore). Gardner’s wife is killed during the break-in, and in the aftermath, he tries to put his life back together with Margaret’s help. But Nicky suspects something odd is going on, and soon enough, the police get involved and a suburban conspiracy begins to slowly unravel.

What’s it really about?

Surburbicon is most literally about how the fabled ‘50s heyday of white America — the same one a certain political campaign thought would help make America great again — is an abject lie, a veneer that hid depravity, cruelty, and corruption. That’s not a particularly new idea, but Clooney also focuses heavily on race relations as a core part of that lie. Suburbicon is a proud all-white community, and when a black family moves into the neighborhood, the residents take immediate action. They sign petitions trying to drive the Meyers family out, they charge Mrs. Meyers ridiculous mark-ups at the grocery store, and they show up nightly outside the family’s home to chant and jeer them into submission. It’s a horrible display, and there isn’t much subtlety in Clooney’s point: this is an indictment of modern-day America, and he’s not interested in hiding it.

Is it good?

Clooney does a wonderful job in simply adopting the tone and style of the Coens’ filmography. At times, his film comes off like a cover song — it has all the hallmarks of a familiar, beloved hit, even if it’s not the same. The individual moments often work, largely because of the cast Clooney’s assembled. Damon is clearly having a lot of fun subverting his Ordinary American Guy persona, and Julianne Moore is impeccable as always. But Oscar Isaac is the most memorable, turning a couple of scenes as a shady insurance investigator into two of the most delightful (and gory) sequences in the film.

But Suburbicon fails to hold together, in large part because it never treats the Meyers family as actual characters. Clooney uses them as an springboard for moments of bigotry and horror, even though they never impact the tongue-in-cheek core story of Gardner and his family. The closest Suburbicon gets is a passing friendship between Nicky and the Meyers’ son, Andy. Andy explains that his father told him the best way to face down virulent racial hatred is to never show any weakness, but that’s really the only insight Clooney offers into what the Meyers are experiencing, and how they feel about it. What should be a vital story comes across as an afterthought, at best. At worst, it plays like Suburbicon is using the Meyers family as props, failing to to give them the same kind of depth or screen time it gives its two-bit thugs, or Nicky’s wacky uncle.

That isn’t a condemnation of Suburbicon’s intentions. Mainstream art-forms have a unique opportunity to contribute to the public discourse around social issues, and Clooney doesn’t hesitate to share his point of view on racism, hypocrisy, or self-serving justifications for both. But the film should also strive to go beyond mere tokenism. Earlier this year, Get Out demonstrated just how effective storytelling can be in conveying different points of views and perspectives. In the wake of that movie’s success, it’s hard to not see Suburbicon’s scattered execution as a tremendous missed opportunity.

What should it be rated?

Fireplace-poker violence? Check. Poisonings? Check. Racial epithets? Check. General bad-people-doing-bad-things stuff? Check. Comedic tendencies or not, this one deserves an R.

How can I actually watch it?

Suburbicon arrives in American theaters on October 27th.