Make a single copy of a paper and it’s a near duplicate of the original. But make a copy of that copy and something is missing. It’s not as sharp or in focus.
And so it goes with Suburbicon. A dark comedy-drama originally written by the Oscar-winning Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, Fargo) in the 1980s, updated by them a decade ago, it’s been clumsily adapted for today’s headlines by Grant Heslov (Good Night, and Good Luck) and George Clooney, who also directed.
The genesis of Suburbicon may be from the minds of the Coens, but the film misses their end-to-end creative guidance and acuity. Clooney and Heslov's addition to Suburbicon is notably one of the movie's key failures: a ham-handed reproach of racism in this political era of social division.
Set in a new, prosperous, and white suburb in the 1950s, Suburbicon is the devolution of those sitcom-y white homeowners into a seething mob with the arrival of the first black family in the neighborhood.
What begins as an indictment of ugly white rage eventually erupts in a flashpoint of cliches and over-the-top lecturing, including the gimmicky use of a Confederate Flag so blatantly preachy even most liberals will groan, “Too much.”
It's an event that’s based on a real-life incident in Levittown, Pa., Clooney told the Hollywood Reporter early last month.
It’s also Suburbicon’s sideplot.
Directed by George Clooney. Written by Joel and Ethan Coen. A Paramount Pictures release playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for violence, language, and some sexuality. Running time 104 minutes.
Critic's rating: 2 stars
Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac.
The main story is Murphy's Law applied to a single-murder scheme. Everything that can go wrong does, though the resulting twists are routine and the escalating body count obvious.
The film stars Matt Damon as Gardner, a husband-father and middle-class business owner in debt to the mob who arranges for the murder of his wife, Rose, with a lucrative life insurance policy as the payout.
While Gardner’s circumstances are similar to Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in Fargo, the characters are widely different: Lundegaard was the pathetic loser who became increasingly desperate and whiny; Gardner is the dull side of sinister family man as is Damon’s flat performance, save those occasional piques at anyone who troubles him.
Julianne Moore plays Margaret, twin sister of Gardner's wife Rose (also played by Moore), who moves into the family home as a replacement wife and mom after Rose’s murder by two thugs-for-hire (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) during a household robbery.
At least Moore finds some depth to the character, as Margaret’s June Cleaver act turns murderous.
Noah Jupe plays the young son Nicky who is detached from his family. The detachment grows into wariness when he begins to suspect his dad and aunt were in on his mom’s murder.
The characters are familiar and the performances, like Damon’s, are mostly one-note with little wiggle room for emotional variety.
Oscar Isaac as a sly insurance claims adjuster named Roger stands out as the most memorable and original character in the film. Roger is worthy of his own film, so naturally he’s not around nearly enough in Suburbicon.
The film’s disparate plots of murder in a quiet neighborhood and barely hidden racism are linked by Clooney’s never-subtle message of White America’s misplaced fears based on race when there are true monsters lurking in suburbia — possibly even next door. It’s a tenuous connection that elevate’s Clooney’s righteous indignation above his responsibility as a good director to make a good film.
The Coens have a penchant for juxtaposing the quirky and odd with the harrowing and macabre. Clooney lacks that ability — gift, really — to harmoniously conflate such extremes.
A scene with Gardner frantically racing away from an explosion while perched on a children’s bike several sizes too small for his frame lacks a comedic punch, dark as it may be.
In the Coens’ hands, this sequence is a funny-odd punch-line incongruent to the destruction onscreen, offering subtle if not symbolic revelations of and for the character.
With Clooney, this sequence is straightforward: a man on a kid’s bike fleeing a fire.
In a drama and thriller that struggles to be anything more than passable, the absence of such gallows humor is sorely needed and missed.
As are the Coens.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
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