I can sum up Suburbicon in one word: dangerous. George Clooney‘s newest directorial effort, is set to a throw-away script by the Coen brothers, and stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in 1950’s American suburbia. On paper, Suburbicon has a lot going for it. Nevertheless, its lack of awareness toward racial tensions tacked on to a hokey crime yarn is dangerous.
The opening shot of Suburbicon, an “ideal” area to raise your family, is that of the mailman meeting the new neighbors: the Mayers (probably the first black family in Suburbicon). The film pokes fun at the white constituents’ reactions to Mrs. Mayers (Karimah Westbrook), and it’s one of the funniest portions of the film. However the film doesn’t take the path that makes sense, you know, focusing on the racial tensions. Instead it takes a detour to their neighbors, the Gardners. Julianne Moore plays both Margaret and Rose, twins sisters. Margaret is the wife of Gardner (Damon). Their son Nicky (Noah Jupe), at the encouragement of his wheelchair-bound mother, plays with the Mayerses’ son (Tony Espinosa). Later they become attacked by two hired guns from the mob, and Margaret is killed.
The whole plot of the Gardners is essentially the Coen brothers portion of the film. It feels very much like Fargo, in that there’s a conniving husband who’s hired men to kill his wife for insurance money. Gardner is a bumbling idiot, along with Rose (his conspirator in this farce). In all honesty, there are great Coen brothers-esque parts, whether that’s Damon riding a child’s bike after disposing of a body, or Rose incoherently talking to the insurance investigator, played by a fantastic Oscar Isaac. Nevertheless, even with great performances by Isaac, Damon, and Moore, the script falls woefully short.
Essentially, Clooney bites off more than he can chew. These should be two separate movies, the plight of the Mayerses and the idiocy of the Gardners. Instead, they are Frankensteined together. In the process, the effectiveness of each portion is lessened to head-splitting levels. What’s of even greater trouble, is the fact that one of the neglected portions—the Mayerses—has to do with racial equality. You can satirize people’s racial prejudices, but you’re always walking a tightrope. Clooney not only falls off that rope, on the way down he also finds a hole, and then on the way down through that, an acid pit. Because it’s not enough to look at racial prejudice and make fun of the people doing it, you have to say something. Clooney never says anything, except for a few words by Isaac saying, “You’d think we’re in Mississippi.”
Racial inequality isn’t a foil to some crime romp. Clooney attempts to come off as aware of the 1950’s blind spots, while ignoring his own. As each white resident ignores the acts of the Gardners, and blames the Mayerses—because these killings didn’t happen before they arrived—it gets overused. Yes, 1950’s white America was racially clueless, such as using the right to live around anyone they please as a civil right. However, what else do you have to say? The problem is that Clooney doesn’t have anything else to add. Instead, being black in the suburbs becomes a tone-deaf punchline.
Surburbicon would be so much more successful if it knew what it wanted to be. It could be a great ironic look at race in America or a twisting spaghetti crime mystery. Instead, it’s both and worse for it.
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Photo Credit: EW.com