As a director, George Clooney’s movies have been hit and miss (e.g. GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, THE MONUMENTS MEN). His latest is SUBURBICON, based on an unproduced Coen brothers screenplay from the 80s that he adapted with his writing and producing partner Grant Heslov. This feels like a failed Coen brothers movie, but to be fair, even the Coen brothers don’t usually get a Coen brothers movie right.
The setting is an stereotypical 50s suburb, in the LEAVE IT TO BEAVER mold — picture perfect houses, lily-white housewives with perms and dresses — you know the drill. The movie even starts with a wholly unnecessary commercial for SUBURBICON, complete with cheesy 50s announcer voice. BUT THEN… needle scratch.. black people move in! I get it, what TV portrayed as the ideal in the 50s was horsehit, because it ignored the suffering of vast swaths of the population. But ALL IN THE FAMILY was dismantling the misguided notion of the perfect drama-free suburbs in the 70s. And by the 90s PLEASANTVILLE beat this idea so senseless it took the term “colored people” literally. You know, INDIANA JONES AND THE CRYSTAL SKULL KINGDOM or whatever the hell it was called did the 50s better than this, and saying that movie did anything better than anything hurts my soul.
The main plot is a crime that happens to the Lodge family — Gardner (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore), and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). An apparent robbery goes bad, but pretty soon things start smelling fishy and an insurance agent (Oscar Isaac) is sent to investigate. Of these five characters, only Oscar Isaac’s has anywhere near the flair and panache we expect from a Coen brothers character. The rest are extraordinarily boring, even when the script calls for them to do less than boring things. Even if this were the only plot of the film, it would be a failure. This is a squandering of Oscar-level talent (<-pun) on an epic scale.
The second parallel plot is that a black family, the Meyers, has moved in next door, and the white residents of SUBURBICON are not having it. (If you’re keeping score at home, the Meyers are completely devoid of Oscars, like this film at awards season). The white families put up fences, chase the Meyers out of public spaces, terrorize them in their home, and ultimately riot. This is based on the real-life experiences of the Myers family when they moved to Levittown 1957. After the screening at TIFF, Clooney implied that he either added or at least bumped up the subplot about the black family. This makes sense in that it nothing about it is written in the Coen style.
The perplexing thing is that we are really only shown the suffering of this black family from the white perspective. The father is never really shown clearly, and the mother (Karimah Westbrook) is only on screen for a few minutes. Our way in is through the son Andy (Tony Esinosa), who plays with the Lodge’s kid, but barely even speaks. This is a pretty extreme choice, and it is clearly done to say, hey, we’re looking in the wrong place for crime.
There are about a dozen things wrong with odd coupling of plots, but for brevity I’ll stop at three. First, this has all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Second, Clooney has focused on the wrong story. What is happening to the Meyers is *far* more interesting and important than the crime caper next door (which, being both textbook noir and textbook Coen we’ve seen a million times). And third, the film is doing the very thing it purports to decry, namely making the black family’s suffering all about the effect it has on white people.
I get the bold artistic decision to focus on the “wrong” thing. But when Tarantino showed that this could be done by not showing the crime in RESERVOIR DOGS, he at least had the good sense to make the discussion and aftermath *more* interesting than the unseen thing would have been. There could have been a way to pull that off here. Maybe not show the black family at all, and just hear about them in through the distorted lens of the white folks. Maybe have the main plot have a thread of prejudice that ties into and pays off the other story. Maybe fully flesh out the black characters. Or hell, just make the main story more compelling.
George Clooney is an amazing actor, and has even been known to be a decent director. He’s clearly passionate about the Myers too — he invited family members to the screening and talked at length on the subject. Call me a grouch, but if he wanted to make a movie about the Myers, I wish he’d just use his prodigious resources to produce a film or documentary about that subject instead of having them be a sideshow in his farce. And if he wanted to make a Coen brothers movie I wish he’d just do that from the producer’s chair too.