Cinema Dispatch: Suburbicon

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Suburbicon and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures

Directed by George Clooney

Now this film kind of came out of nowhere for me as I’ve only been seeing the trailers for maybe a month leading up to its release.  I guess that’s not too surprising as George Clooney films, good or bad, rarely make a whole lot of money so there’s not much point in advertising it to the movie going masses; especially when the film in question looks pretty dark and super weird.  I mean that makes sense considering it’s from a script The Coen Brothers wrote back in the eighties, but that little factoid not only explains why this movie has been rather low key despite its wide release, it also raises some red flags.  Is this a cinematic masterpiece that was just too good to be made in its time, or did the Coen Brother put this in a draw for so long for a really good reason?  Let’s find out!!

The movie is basically split into two stories; the first being about Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) who’s family suffers a horrible tragedy, and The Mayers (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M Burke, and Tony Espinosa) who have just moved into the idyllic neighborhood known as Suburbia and have the dubious honor of being the first black family in town.  With The Mayers moving into town and bringing out the worst in the neighborhood just for simply being there, there isn’t a whole lot of attention paid to Gardner and what seems to be some very shady stuff going on with him.  For starters, the death of his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) by some bad men who broke into the house seems to have not been as random an act of violence as it appears to be on the surface, yet no one is picking up on this than Gardner’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe) who’s the only one really looking for answers.  Throw in some possible mob connections, Nicky’s aunt Margaret (Julianne Moore as well) who’s working a bit too hard to fill in the motherly figure role, and a suspicious insurance claims adjuster (Oscar Isaac), and you have the makings for a classic noir thriller set against the backdrop of the super repressed and overtly racist fifties!  Will Nicky find the answers he’s looking for and will he be happy with what he finds?  What is Gardner have up his sleeve that’s making him act so inexplicably after the murder?  Does anyone in this movie REALLY have any idea what they’re doing!?

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“NO NO NO NO NO!!  THIS ISN’T HOW IT ALWAYS WORKS OUT IN THE MOVIES!!”

I don’t know about this one.  I can’t say that I outright hated it or that I feel it’s one of the worst movies of the year, but it feels so… disappointing.  It’s got most of the right pieces in place and it is enjoyable to watch in fits and spurts (especially the ending) but there’s still too much missing for this to live up to its true potential.  Now it’s not The Snowman in terms of stuff that’s missing as the story does flow together and ultimately makes sense by the end, but there’s too much misdirection and a distinct lack of information in a timely manner for any of this to have all that much impact.  I wasn’t even sure what we were watching or what we were ultimately waiting for to happen until about the half way point, and even then the movie had kept so many of its cards so close to the chest that it just didn’t end up mattering all that much once the ball really started rolling.  It’s a movie that feels like it misses the forest for the trees, but to give the film its credit, there ARE some really nice trees in here.  It’s just that when you take a step back and realize that the really nice pine tree and the very nice palm tree you were looking at are right next to each other which look rather incongruous and that both are surrounded on all sides by a landfill.  Hey, if you thought THAT metaphor was tortured, just try figuring out what the hell the point of THIS movie is!

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DON’T BULLSHIT ME, MATT DAMON!  YOU’RE UP TO SOMETHING!!

Okay, so trying to narrow down the problems into one overarching theme I basically came to the conclusion that this is what Fargo would have been like without Marge Gunderson, or possibly even Burn After Reading if it wasn’t nearly as farcical.  Now this makes a certain amount of sense considering it’s written by the Coen Brothers who are responsible for both of those movies I mentioned, but it’s still somewhat surprising considering how fundamentally misguided this film is on a scripting level.  Okay, MAYBE some of the blame here should go to George Clooney whose directing career is rather mixed, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a Coen Brothers script written by people who only KINDA understand Coen Brothers movies.  Without Marge in Fargo, the movie wouldn’t have had an entry point for the audience to gravitate towards, nor would it have a moral center for all the horrific stuff that went on.  She’s the glue that held together all the disparate parts of that movie, or at least was the final cog in getting that complex machine to run properly.  In this film we only SORT of get that with the son Nicky whose traumatic journey seems to be the whole point of the piece, but his role is one of passivity and disempowerment (which makes sense as he is a kid) so everyone around him has to push the plot forward.  The problem with that is that everyone in this film is a cartoon character from completely different films with Matt Damon as somewhat of a Michael Douglas in Falling Down archetype, Julianne Moore as Faye Dunaway in act one of Mommy Dearest, and so and on and so on to the point that it never feels like anyone is steering this ship and we’re just drifting along from scene to scene without much guidance or direction.  The third act does help a lot of this as the varied subplots do end up converging in a rather satisfying (and shockingly brutal) fashion, but by then it’s hard to really care much about what’s going on no matter how well executed it is.

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Norman Rockwell would have a field day with these two.

The film is also oddly structured, and not just because the plot is way too coy for two thirds of it.  The subplot with the black neighbors who just moved feels like it’s SUPPOSED to relate in some way to the Matt Damon storyline and the mired of directions the film is going with that, but ends up being rather tangential to everything else which is a shame considering how much more focused it is.  The scenes of them dealing with the racist bullshit that is thrown at them constantly are admittedly played up a bit TOO much at points but it ends up overshadowing the main storyline as far as emotional resonance.  Now to clarify, I’m not necessarily saying that the awful behavior they are forced to endure is UNREALISTIC, it’s more that the racist white people come off a bit too goofy and over the top to be taken as seriously as they should be .  There’s literally a scene in this movie where the neighborhood has a very angry meeting about the new black family (they’re practically going RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE the whole time) and it all comes across as one big farcical set up.  Like… how did they even manage to move into the neighborhood if there was THIS much resistance right out the gate?  Why did the Mayers family even move here when the animosity was so clear from everyone around them?  The movie doesn’t have time for questions like that and instead just wants to show us how crappy the situation gets which I guess isn’t a COMPLETELY worthless endeavor, but it’s also why something like Hidden Figures which took the time to actually make everyone an interesting character is a much stronger meditation on the subject of race.  It’s certainly stronger in terms of engagement than the main storyline (mostly because of how strong the imagery gets at points), but they should have either fleshed out its characters more or had given it a much stronger connection to the main storyline.

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Would have been nice if someone had given them dialogue too!

The best connection that they seem to have is the overarching theme of the movie which is DIDN’T THE FIFTIES SUCK, and I GUESS that’s a decent enough message to have, but it feels rather clumsily handled in this.  In fact, let’s just go ahead and say that’s the REAL problem of this movie as I’ve mentioned it a few times already.  There are a lot of ideas that are good IN THEORY and are even executed rather competently, but the film drops the ball far too often; whether it’s the mystery not having a strong central character to walk us through it, the exploration of racial hardships in blunt and cartoonish terms, or even the fifties aesthetic which isn’t all that convincing and comes off as spiteful but without a whole lot of bite.  There are moments in here where you can really feel how different things were back then and how freaking TORTUOUS the social mores of the day were to anyone who was different or anyone stuck in an abusive situation.  This is where Nicky shines because so much of his arc is about realizing just how terrible his father and aunt really are and how much of what he’s been taught was a form of repression and obedience rather than of any real use to him.  It’s scenes like these that keep me from really hating the movie, but they are far and few between compared to the rather aimless scenes of Matt Damon being a dipshit and white people popping their monocles about integration.  At least the third act manages to have a whole lot of payoff and some really uncomfortable yet somewhat humorous bloodshed that the darker Coen Brothers films are known for which manages to end the film on a high note that it frankly didn’t deserve considering how mishandled the rest of the film was.

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“All things considered, I’d call this evening a moderate success.”     “How do you figure that one?”     “Well I at least got a sandwich out of it.”

From a career that is as up and down as George Clooney’s is when he’s behind the camera, it’s probably not all that surprising that his latest is much the same way.  It might actually be the most INCONSISTENT of his films (at least of the ones I’ve seen) considering how high its good points are and how bad the low points get, but it’s far from the worst movie of the year and will certainly garner an audience over time who can get behind what it was trying to do with these disparate parts.  I don’t really recommend seeing it in the theater because I feel the good aspects don’t justify just how much bad there is in this, but it’s absolutely worth watching once it gets a home release.   As far as Coen Brothers films… well it certainly had potential but you can see why they didn’t bother making this when they ACTUALLY wrote it and how their later works improved greatly on this formula.

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