Control Nathan and Clint: Suburbicon (2017)
Matt Damon’s reputation as a smart, politically informed thinking man’s movie star has taken quite a hit over the past couple of years. With Ben Affleck staying mostly off the sauce and directing and starring in Oscar-winning Films of quality, Damon’s status as the bright, talented half of that partnership isn’t even secure.
Instead of epitomizing Hollywood’s smart set, Damon today has the misfortune of coming to represent a maddeningly ubiquitous type: the educated, accomplished, massively famous and successful man who, on a fundamental level, Does Not Get It.
Because they fundamentally Do Not Get It these Matt Damon types are often their own worst enemy. The currents of social progress knock them off their equilibrium so they say and do things betraying no small level of casual racism and sexism and all-around cluelessness. The more they talk the more arrogant they seem and the less they appear to know, particularly when it comes to the lives of people who are not handsome white rich straight powerful celebrities.
Not Getting It, alas, also applies to Matt Damon’s friend, collaborator, Ocean’s 11 co-conspirator and fellow Master of the Universe George Clooney when it comes to directing movies. And seldom is Clooney’s unfortunate penchant for Not Getting It more gallingly, glaringly apparent than with his heavy-handed handling of 2017’s Suburbicon, a long-in-the-works neo-noir muddle that began life as a screenplay the Coen Brothers wrote in the mid 1980s and arrived in theaters a DOA critical and commercial flop George Clooney directorial vehicle.
There are essentially two sides to Damon. There’s the golden child baby Academy Award winner/Jason Bourne/Good Will Hunting overachiever who is so fast and so sharp that he’s seemingly borderline superhuman. Then there’s the Matt Damon who loves playing weird, creepy losers, possibly because, as his public fumbling and bumbling about race and gender and sex in the #MeToo era has illustrated, there’s a weird, creepy, unpleasant, clueless side to Damon the man and the celebrity as well.
That creepy side informs Damon’s underwhelming and over the top turn as murderous, philandering, scheming patriarch Gardner Lodge, an oily patriarch who has his wife Rose (the great Julianne Moore at her least great and most grating) murdered for insurance money and then sets up house with her evil stepmother of an identical twin, much to the horror of the couple’s understandably traumatized child Nicky (Noah Lupe) who just wants to be left to play with his friend next door and not have to be witness to so much depravity and murder.
Filmmaking is largely a matter of choices. Clooney almost invariably makes choices that are as strong as they are wrong and terrible. That begins with Clooney taking a characteristically dark and misanthropic Coen Brothers tale of lust and murder in fifties suburbia and grafting onto it, Frankenstein’s monster style, the real-life story of the first black family to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania and the horrific abuse and harassment they endured.
The Coen brothers apparently gave Clooney and writing/producing partner Grant Heslov the green light to make their nasty Noir a well-meaning if hopelessly muddled message movie about saintly, stoic African-Americans nobly enduring the cartoonish hatred and awfulness of their sausage-fingered, perpetually sweaty and apoplectic white neighbors, who are like the devil but worse. Why? I’m guessing because the big old check cleared, they like their exceedingly likable frequent collaborator and they ultimately didn’t really care what Clooney did with a script they wrote a lifetime ago and deigned not to direct themselves for reasons that soon become apparent.
Instead of lending the wackily blood-soaked proceedings an air of contemporary resonance, gravity and social consciousness, the few sequences involving the black family end up cheapening and diminishing their real-life suffering by making it window dressing for a slight, misanthropic bit of hard-boiled genre foolishness.
Suburbicon would lose nothing of value from these characters’ absence because it gains nothing from their presence beyond a tacked-on message about children being wiser and kinder and less ruled by hatred and bigotry than their racism-poisoned parents that couldn’t feel more glaringly out of place coming at the end of a corpse-strewn Coen Brothers-lite dark comedy.
The strong bad choices continue with a title that’s the name of the neighborhood where this all takes place, sure, but also makes you think about how, when it comes right down to it, it’s SUBURBIA that’s the con, isn’t it? It’s like, what’s behind all those white picket fences? What if I told you it was BAD STUFF!?! Like, seriously messed up junk. People cheating on their wives. Murder. Racism. Did I mention the infidelity? It ain’t all Leave It to Beaver, friend. People think that was a documentary, the first reality show. It wasn’t. If anything, it presented an unrealistically rosy picture of American life in the 1950s. I’m sorry if that blew your mind but, like George Clooney, I’m not afraid to make the most obvious possible points in the most obvious manner imaginable. It was like that Money Monster movie he did. That film asked who the real monster was, money or Godzilla, and then argued that money was the bigger monster because it’s a malevolent, anxiety-producing force in our lives and society as a whole while Godzilla is merely a fictional monster conceived as heavy-handed metaphor for the devastating effects the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings had on Japanese society as a whole.
The insultingly heavy-handed quasi-social commentary continues with opening narration delivered with a cartoonish, over-the-top folksy wholesomeness that broadcasts the clumsy sarcasm of a grim, hate-fueled suburban dystopia being presented as the ultimate realization of the American Dream.
In the whitest cadences this side of a Pat Boone Christmas special, the film’s narrator brags against an equally odious backdrop of ironically chipper, upbeat music, “Welcome to Suburbicon, a town of great wonder and excitement. Founded in 1947, Suburbicon was built with the promise of prosperity for all. And in only 12 short years, it has grown from a few small homes to a living, breathing community with all the conveniences of the big city without all the noise or the traffic. And now, with nearly 60,000 residents, they enjoy their own schools, a fire department, and a police department. There's a shopping mall. A first-rate hospital. Why, we even have our own choir.”
Here’s the thing: despite the man’s glibly ironic words, Suburbicon is most assuredly not a town of great wonder and excitement. That makes it sounds great, and wholesome, when, in fact, it’s anything but great. Suburbia? More like Suburbi-CON, am I right, ladies?
Clooney is establishing from the outset that the film’s tone will be glib and facile, heavy-handed and “subversive” in a way that’s anything but subversive. In its early going, Suburbicon generates some fake mystery/suspense by purposefully withholding relevant information but once the pieces fall into place they depict a groaningly over-familiar tale of lust, murder and insurance fraud. If it’s not the oldest tale in the book then it’s close to it.
Suburbicon plays like a bad cover version of a Coen Brothers movie. All the elements are there, and the talent is formidable, but the spirit is hopelessly off, lumbering and weirdly sentimental and scattered where the co-writer/director’s frequent collaborators are sharp, focused and confident to the point of cockiness about their creative vision and their ability to realize it down to a molecular level.
About forty minutes into Suburbicon, something wonderful and unexpected happens. The movie temporarily gets good. Very good. Don’t worry! It does’t last! Clooney is far too self-sabotaging a director to not almost immediately do away with the film’s most fascinating and charismatic character not long after his introduction.
The catalyst for this electric shift from “tedious and overwrought” to “rippling with tension and dark comedy” is the long overdue introduction of the wonderful Oscar Isaac as Bud Cooper, a whip-smart insurance investigator who enters Gardner and Margaret’s life on a very strong hunch that they conspired to murder Rose for her insurance money.
With a mustache that makes him look like the result of a genetic experiment fusing the DNA of Jon Polito (RIPD), a young George Clooney and Gomez Addams, Isaac cuts through the film’s voluminous bullshit with a blast of movie star charisma and brutal humor. For about ten minutes or so Suburbicon stops seeming like ersatz, second-hand, wannabe Coen Brothers and begins to feel like the real thing.
Then Clooney, in the kind of move that makes me think he’s “movie star smart” as opposed to the real thing, decides to do away almost instantly with this unforgettable, exciting new characters so that we can go back to being bored and annoyed with Damon and Moore, who have done fine work elsewhere but are at their worst here. I suppose it takes an actor to get performances this bad out of otherwise great actors like Moore.
In the film’s only other redeeming facet, Noah Jupe, the child actor who plays Damon’s melancholy progeny does a fine job conveying the desperation and vulnerability that comes with being a powerless child at the mercy of adults who not only don’t have your best interest at heart but are genuinely amoral, if not flat-out evil.
Alas, Suburbicon is not Night of the Hunter. Suburbicon would have been far more powerful if we saw everything through the eyes of a child overwhelmed at being plopped into the middle of a sordid, sex-saturated murder mystery. But it’s not that movie. It doesn’t commit to being a child’s-eye-view of murder and greed anymore than it commits to being about integration and race.
No, Clooney half-asses the child’s story the same way he half-asses everything else here. If George Clooney were not a famously handsome, charming, popular rich white straight man turning an old Coen brothers script into a movie this muddled and disappointing might land its co-writer/director in Movie Jail, possibly for life. Instead, Clooney will undoubtedly be given chance after chance after chance even when those opportunities somewhat predictably result in duds this dire.
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