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Review: Suburbicon – “Unfolds in unkempt narrative fashion”

For his sixth feature film as writer/director, the multi-talented and multi-Oscar winning George Clooney has chosen an ambitious project that unfortunately doesn’t really land on its feet, despite the commendable attempt behind the script’s thematically complex and socially provocative ideas. 

Set in post-WWII America in a fictitious suburban community in Pennsylvania, Suburbicon mostly follows the downward spiral of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), a seemingly innocuous family man whose wheelchair-ridden wife Rose accidentally dies during a home invasion. Shell-shocked by the tragedy, Gardner and his young son Nicky (impressive newcomer Noah Jupe) try to cope with the support of Rose’s twin sister Margaret (both women are played of course by the brilliant Julianne Moore). Yet what goes down at the Lodges’ home seems to remain under the radar as the local community is too busy harassing the African American family that just moved in across the street from the Lodges.

Right off the bat, the main issue with the film is a tonal one: what starts off a racial drama based on real events spins into a pulp dramedy reworked off of a never-produced script written by the Coen Brothers. It could’ve been a compelling creative experiment but it turns out to be an awkward blend of genres. Even without knowing this whole backstory about the genesis of the project, viewers will feel like they’re watching two films at once that just didn’t mingle well.

As it often happens with his directorial efforts, Clooney wrote the film with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov. The long-time producing partners admittedly were aiming to write a film about the racially charged events that occurred in Levittown, Pennsylvania circa post-WWII era. Across his research, Clooney had found a 1957 documentary called “Crisis in Levittown”, which chronicled the true story of William and Daisy Meyers, the first African American family to move to Levittown. The filmmakers were interested in exploring that decade following WWII, when the GI Bill was helping everybody coming back from the war to buy a nice house. The States’ rising middle class was moving to the suburbs where you could get a job and start a family, granted that you were white.

Clooney’s film kicks off with an old fashion PSA introducing the fictitious idyllic community of “Suburbicon” where you can achieve all of the above. However, as the actual story begins, following the arrival of the Meyers in the neighbourhood, we promptly get a taste of the hell they’re about to experience. When Mrs. Meyers (Karimah Westbrook) answers the doorbell, she has to endure the humiliation of being addressed by the postman as the housemaid. Although the mistake is rectified and the man reluctantly delivers the mail to the not-so-surprised Mrs. Meyers, he then takes the initiative of going door to door to warn the other residents about the new neighbours’ arrival. An impromptu council meeting to “deal” with the matter results in the community beginning a non-stop harassment of the poor Meyers that keeps escalating towards violent extremes.

Those are true facts that happened in Levittown but whilst working on his own project Clooney recalled a never produced dark comedy/thriller script called Suburbicon that the Cohen brothers had sent him back in 1999. It was thematically and tonally close to Fargo and Burn After Reading, showcasing a bunch of inept characters prone to making awful life-changing decisions. Clooney decided to transplant the Meyers’ story within that script, mixing fact with fiction and aiming to make an “angry” movie that reflected the dark and problematic times that both America and the entire world are currently facing.

On paper, the idea may sound intriguing and there’s no denying Clooney was on to something. Yet, despite delivering a film that’s thoroughly entertaining, well acted and slickly produced, Suburbicon unfolds in unkempt narrative fashion, making it hard for viewers to care for anyone in particular as they try to figure out what kind of film they’re watching – the blood-stirring, racial drama based on true events or the dark, violent comedy-thriller that involves the Meyers’ white neighbours.

The latter is actually the main storyline in terms of screen time and overall narrative thread. Most criticism since the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival back in September pointed out how for a film that wants to denounce racism, Suburbicon relegates the Meyers to the background. Whilst that is objectively true, the more you delve into the film, the more this choice comes across as intentionally over the top to amplify the gravity of the hate crimes at play. An innocent family was being harassed just for the colour of their skin, being denied their slice of hard-earned American dream whilst in the meantime a seemingly respectful white family was getting involved in crimes that were going unnoticed, buried in the cacophony of the racism happening next door.

There’s no denying the filmmakers’ intentions here are good and their creative instincts on point. However, it’s impossible to ignore that the execution of such an ambitious plan lacks the bite and coherence they were going after and that’s mostly due to the lack of focus on character development. The central problem in that respect is the moral compass of the film, which inevitably weighs on the shoulders of Gardner’s young son Nicky. However, the film’s point of view is not consistent and all the shifting around makes us lose touch with the boy until the chaotic final act where he’s bound to fully understand the corrupted nature of his family and lose his innocent outlook on life.

It’s obvious how Clooney and his team wanted to make a provocative piece and to a certain extent they do – if only they hadn’t made the film’s themes so incredibly on the nose. The mayhem at play in the finale almost felt like a watered-down version of the explosive epilogue in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother. But whilst that film’s storytelling approach was consistent, building that insane world from the start, Suburbicon awkwardly meanders between two storylines that feel rushed and underdeveloped. Despite the clunky storytelling we still appreciate Clooney’s honourable intentions and we consider Suburbicon still worth seeing if anything for Oscar Isaac’s memorable turn as a sleazy life insurance claims investigator. It’s one of those extremely Cohen-esque characters that stand out, especially when played by one of the most amazing actors of our time.

Suburbicon is out in UK cinemas now.

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