By Jack Dignan
If there's anything to take away from Suburbicon, it's that George Clooney is certainly a director. An actor turning to directing isn’t uncommon, but an actor turning into a good director is. With six films down in his directing filmography, it's certainly time we start acknowledging Clooney as the director he is. He's great. And Suburbicon, his latest directorial effort hitting cinema screens this Thursday, is certainly a film. It's just not a very good one. Sorry, Danny Ocean.
Suburbicon is a perplexing film. I left the theatre in a walk of silence, contemplating and soaking in what I'd just watched, unsure as to whether or not I had enjoyed it. It didn't take me too long to realise I didn't. The film feels very much like a Coen Brothers movie, which technically it is as they co-wrote the script along with Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, but it also feels like something trying oh-so-very hard to be a Coens Brothers movie. All of the plot elements are in the right space. You have a quirky town with underlying prejudices and secret mafia dealings, and within this town there lives a family. Gardner (Matt Damon) is the man of the house, always in control over every situation, but a home invasion turns his life around when his wife winds up dead. In fact, this event begins to rattle the entire town.
His wife's twin sister, Margaret (Julianne Moore), moves in with Gardner and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe), but things don't really seem as they appear. Gangsters come and go, insurance fraud is thrown into the mix and a spree of violence begins in what was once considered a quiet family town. The Coens have their fingerprints all over it, but it's not enough to salvage this dreadfully misguided attempt at a movie that's armed with a self inflicted unawareness of what type of story it's trying to tell. The plot is all over the place. There's no focus. It's partially a dark comedy, a racial justice story and a coming of age tale all thrown into one, without any of them flowing well at all.
Suburbicon's plot is misstep after misstep, where characters are over-acted caricatures and the plot spirals out of control from beginning to end. Matt Damon's Gardner isn't even the main character, which is sure to delight Jimmy Kimmel, but from a narrative standpoint, it doesn't work. The decision to shift focus over to Nicky is done in an attempt to hide information about the plot to the audience, building up suspense to a shocking reveal, but the reveal happens too soon and far too predictably. You're left squandering around in the outcome, watching the aftereffects of a very uninteresting, contradictory plot. It's certainly quirky, the writers make sure of that, but humour is placed sporadically, often jarring and somewhat out of place, even if it did have a few good laughs up its sleeves.
Between this and his previous directorial effort The Monuments Men, Clooney's love for old movies is abundantly clear, basically to the point where Suburbicon feels as if it were released a number of decades ago. It feels as though it were made entirely on a sound stage, deliberately using old-school props and obviously cheap sets. Everything has an off-putting retro feel about it, which helps create the necessary atmosphere for a story like this one. It looks and sounds great, a true marvel to watch, and that's because everyone involved seems to have a thorough appreciation of the craft of filmmaking. They all get it. They all love it. They just can't seem to put their oh-so-obvious skills to use and create a story worthy of their talents.
The cast here is truly great. Clooney has rounded up a fine group of a-grade performers who don't hold back, both for better and worse (Julianne Moore overacts everything, giving her eccentric Kingsman performance a run for its money). Damon is chilling as Gardner, who ultimately winds down a predictable arc, but one that does lead to the occasionally grizzly and shamefully hilarious moment here and there. His performance is offbeat and restraint and it works. Noah Jupe is great as Nicky, but his performance is overshadowed by the uninteresting character he’s forced to work with. None of the characters are likeable, so it's Nicky who you're forced to grapple on to, but he's got less personality than Michael Fassbender in The Snowman.
Suburbicon has the makings of a good movie. There's a wild, unpredictable, dark comedy here somewhere, perhaps rooted away in the minds of the Coens, but it doesn't reach the surface. The film serves no point. It has no justifiable existence in this world, and by the time the credits role and George Clooney's name pops up, you're just left feeling cold.
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