105 minutes (18)
As an actor, George Clooney has enjoyed a career few can rival but as a filmmaker he’s proven far more fallible.
Clooney’s work behind the camera is solid enough; each of his films to date have been well shot and owe much to the work of his sometime collaborators the Coen Brothers.
But it’s on the writing side of things that Clooney often falls flat. Films like Monuments Men, Ides of March and Leatherheads all looking the part but ultimately fall short of delivering anything remarkable to the screen.
It’s the same with Suburbicon, his latest effort, which floats plenty of intriguing ideas but delivers a sloppy, haphazard story that falls flat in terms of humour, drama and narrative. It looks fantastic though.
Part racial commentary, part murder mystery with some social satire thrown in for good measure, it’s a mish-mash of ideas that never comes close to amounting to a considered whole. Clooney seems eager to address multiple issues with Suburbicon but unwilling to put in the time to properly flesh out any of the characters or dialogue required to do so.
Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, the story also feels like a poor imitation of their previous work and it’s hardly a surprise to learn it was partly based on one of their old, unwanted, scripts; think Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Man Who Wasn’t There minus the same sharp writing and deliciously dark humour.
The film centres on the peaceful suburban community of Suburbicon, and the Lodge family, led by father Gardner (Matt Damon) a man with demons which soon come to fore with bloody consequences for his family.
Tonally, Damon’s character is all over the place. He’s seemingly posited as a antihero of sorts but becomes an increasingly repulsive presence as the film progresses, to the point where viewers are left struggling to genuinely care about his plight or, by turn, the movie itself.
Julianne Moore, meanwhile, pulls off the remarkable feat of feeling woefully underused despite playing two separate parts in the film as twin sisters. Maybe it’s a comment on 1950s society, but the majority of her scenes involve either being in the kitchen or working at the supermarket, saying next to nothing of note. That might be giving Clooney too much credit though.
There are some strong turns. Oscar Isaac livens things up with an appearance as insurance investigator Roger, a man extremely suspicious of Gardner and his actions, while newcomer Noah Jupe holds much of the film together and emerges as the one character audiences can and will root for.
But the muddled central story of mobsters, hits, insurance policies and kidnappings feel like old hat and has certainly been done bigger and better by others, while the characters themselves feel like caricatures at odds with the film’s attempts at social commentary.
Which leads us neatly into the film’s major flaw: the decision to crowbar another plot into proceedings concerning a black family who move next door to the Lodges’ and suffer a torrent of abuse for moving into an all-white neighbourhood.
They are hounded day and night, are no longer welcome at the supermarket and have trouble integrating but, aside from the family’s young son, these characters remain mere outlines, a sketch of racial commentary that amounts to little of real meaning or insight and feels at odds with the main plot.
You could take this entire section out of the film and it would make little difference. It feels like a half-hearted attempt at addressing an important and depressing chapter in US history and a wasted opportunity at giving Suburbicon more substance than it ultimately amounts to.
There are flashes of potential, of course, and the film is enjoyable enough – if you like all things Coen Brothers then Suburbicon is a great companion piece with plenty of odd plot turns, bloody violence and light humour on offer. It’s just not quite the A-grade stuff though, with a story that feels like it’s going through the motions, ticking off all the usual Coen tropes.
With a tighter script and more focus on fleshing out characters, motives, and plot, this might have been a compelling and clever crime drama. As it is, it’s a solid enough film but one that, given the talent behind it, really should have amounted to more.
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.