When taking a pre-existing script and adding significant strands and themes, it’s advisable to try using these additions to build on and develop what is already written, the hope being that the original script is enlivened and improved by these new elements. What is inadvisable, however, is to take an existing script and add new elements that neither enrich the film thematically or narratively, but only serve to make an incredibly pompous and self-satisfied point. What’s even more inadvisable than this, though, it to expect the audience to be amazed by the audacity and daring of said point.
And so we have Suburbicon. George Clooney’s latest directorial feature is scripted by Clooney and his co-writer, Grant Heslov, who are working from an unproduced Coen brother’s script that they wrote in 1986. Set in the eponymous 50’s suburb, it tells a story of seedy, white collar crime alongside a tangentially related story about the racial tension that ensues when a black family moves into this previously all white neighbourhood. The first strand of the story concerns Matt Damon’s Gardner Lodge, and how his life is turned upside down when his wife is murdered in a home invasion. This is unmistakeably the Coen-penned side of the story – bumbling white collar crime, idiosyncratic dialogue, sudden flashes of grisly violence – that appears to have originally been a sort of mish-mash of Fargo and A Serious Man (two far superior Coen films). Clooney and Heslov’s addition, it seems, is the separate narrative about the Meyer’s, the aforementioned black family, who move in next door to the Lodge’s, and face a campaign of harassment from angry white residents.
Now that seems, at first, a potentially interesting idea – using the kitschy 50’s aesthetic (which, by the way, is completely overdone; this may, of course, have been the point, but it just ends up feeling completely fake and distracting), seedy white criminality, and an exploration of dark forces simmering under the surface of picket fence suburbia to ask questions about race and prejudice. Yet Clooney either doesn’t have the courage of his convictions or completely misunderstood how to connect these two tangential stories in any kind of satisfying thematic sense because to say that the Meyers’ story is undercooked would be a woeful understatement; Clooney utterly fails to give their story any justice at all.
A lot happens to the Meyers’, to be sure; we see repeated instances of abuse they receive – discrimination at the supermarket, funny looks on the street, crowds of people standing outside their house and harassing them – yet Clooney seems to have little interest in exploring how they feel about it. This is evident from the fact that they have, in total, about ten lines in the whole movie. They merely take their abuse nobly and without complaint. And it’s extremely frustrating because we’re constantly being reminded that there’s a story happening that the filmmakers don’t seem interested in telling and also deeply problematic because one would expect a film ostensibly about marginalised people to give those marginalised people characters and emotions of their own.
Their real purpose, it seems, is merely to provide a counterpoint to the grim events going down at the Lodge’s, which take up the vast majority of the film. But even taken on its own terms the Lodge centred part of the movie is hugely disappointing – a sort of Coen-lite tribute that has been done better many, many times before (the fact that the Coen’s wrote the script then left it on the shelf for thirty years is telling). But while the dull and uninvolving script is bad, Clooney’s leaden direction deserves an equal portion of the blame. There were several scenes that fell completely flat or felt as if a more competent director would have at least made them pop. And I didn’t laugh once, which is a real problem for a film that is allegedly a comedy. The film does briefly come to life when Oscar Isaac appears as a sleazy insurance man, yet his appearance is all too brief.
Damon, while looking suitably paunchy and put-upon, commits the mortal sin of being both unlikeable – which, of course, isn’t necessarily a deal breaker – and completely uninteresting. The more we find out about him the less we want to know. By the end of the film it’s clear: he’s just a scumbag, and a dull one too. Julianne Moore is fine, I suppose, in a dual role as Gardner’s wife and her twin sister. But credit must go to Noah Jupe as Gardner’s son, Nicky. Jupe plays Nicky’s bewilderment and sense of loss well for such a young actor, and along with Oscar Isaac completely steals the movie.
But a few decent performances can’t save what is an otherwise dismal and poorly conceived film. The most galling thing about the whole enterprise is that Clooney seems to be labouring under the illusion that he has something important to tell us about race and prejudice in America. That message, as far as I can tell, is this: maybe, if racist’s stopped needlessly abusing innocent blacks and looked at themselves, they might find that they’re the bigger assholes.
Well, yeah, Suburbicon, no shit.