Dissecting a flop (or is it?)
George Clooney’s new film, a dark-comedy noir starring Matt Damon and based on an old screenplay by the Coen brothers, seems like it should have been a guaranteed success. Instead, Suburbicon flopped at the box office and was panned by the critics. What happened, and is the film really as bad as the critics say?
Suburbicon’s satire works quite well and does give viewers something to think about as we consider life in North America today.
The opening scene would suggest otherwise. By way of a TV ad that perfectly captures the time (1950s) and place (small-town USA) in an obvious parody, the scene introduces us to the ideal, all-white community of Suburbicon. Suburbicon’s 60,000 inhabitants live in nearly identical homes and almost always have a smile on their face because they are so happy to be living there. At least until the fateful day an African American family (the Mayers) moves into town, sending everyone reeling and soon resulting in increasingly violent attempts to persuade the Mayers to leave.
The music, the production design, and the cinematography create a period feel in this opening scene that is just right. With regular background commentary from radio and TV throughout the film, the period feel is maintained and enhanced even when Suburbicon becomes a film noir instead of a light satire. But the story in the rest of the film doesn’t live up to the potential of that opening scene.
Damon plays Gardner Lodge, a company vice president and one of Suburbicon’s supposedly happy citizens. Gardner is married to Rose (Julianne Moore), who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident years before, and who is helped out by her twin sister, Margaret (also Moore). Gardner and Rose have a 10-year-old son named Nicky (Noah Jupe), who is actually Suburbicon’s protagonist. Other key characters are Nicky’s uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) and an insurance investigator named Bud Cooper (a delicious cameo by Oscar Isaac).
One night, the serene family life of the Lodges is disrupted when two men break into their home and do things that result in Rose’s death. (Minor spoiler alert.) Margaret quickly steps in to assume Rose’s place in the household while Gardner returns to work in a state of some agitation, agitation that seems to have more to do with money than with the loss of his wife. When Gardner and Margaret fail to identify Rose’s killers in a police lineup, Nicky is at first confused, then alarmed. Too late, he realizes that the horror of his mother’s death is only the first of many horrors that are about to befall him and his family.
Meanwhile, the Mayers, who happen to live next door to the Lodges, are finding themselves under siege by the angry townsfolk, who have placed a Confederate flag on their living room window.
That the dark (and darkly humorous) story of the Lodge family seems to have little to do with the story of the Mayer family next door is one of the key criticisms of Suburbicon. It stems from the fact that the dark-comedy thriller part of the film was written by the Coen brothers decades ago while the story of the Mayer family was added by Clooney and cowriter Grant Heslov just before filming. Film critics are convinced that trying to mix these two stories was a bad idea, especially because the two stories are so unequal, with far more time devoted to the Lodge family and very little to the Mayer family, who get virtually no character development (which is why I haven’t even identified them). Critics complain that using the Mayers as a social commentary plot element on the side is distasteful; it is also seen as ironic (because of the unequal nature of the story), given that Clooney was clearly attempting to express his views on life in the United States in the 21st century.
However, I believe there are factors that mitigate the critics’ complaints. First, the story of the Mayer family is based on a real-life event in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957, so its inclusion in Suburbicon is a deliberate attempt to show how little has changed in a country rife with fears that Syrian or Mexican immigrants may move in next door (not to mention the 2017 white nationalist rally and violence in Charlottesville, which occurred after the film was made). Second, the reason the Mayer family is relegated to being a plot element is that Suburbicon is neither a drama nor a social satire. If it were one of these, the criticisms about its heavy-handed racial satire would be well-deserved. But Suburbicon is a dark-comedy thriller with some social satire on the side, satire that focuses not only on how members of the innocent Mayer family are treated like criminals while the real criminals next door are ignored, but also on how Gardner hates his supposedly perfect but meaningless life, leading to his criminal acts.
I am not suggesting that Suburbicon is a great film. On the contrary, I think its dark comedy misses the mark as often as it finds it, its story of the Lodge family is uneven and has little to offer, and it needs substantially more character development all around.
Nevertheless, I found watching Suburbicon an enjoyable experience. Jupe and Damon are outstanding, with Jupe (as Nicky) providing the key emotional engagement in the film, and Suburbicon’s satire, unlike its darker comedy, works quite well and does give viewers something to think about as we consider life in North America today.
So I am confused about why so many viewers and critics found watching Suburbicon to be such an unpleasant experience, especially when I think about the popularity and critical acclaim of an unpleasant film like It. It is a film that features seven wonderful teenage actors in roles that might have made for a profound and beautiful coming-of-age story in small-town Maine. Instead, for me, that ludicrous and violent film has absolutely nothing to offer, and watching Suburbicon is a much better use of time (if you can handle the violence).
Both films feature life-affirming messages buried within a violent narrative, but It subverts its potential message by focusing on scares, while Suburbicon adds its message to an otherwise pointless plot in order to help make the world a better place. Clooney should be lauded and encouraged for doing this, not denigrated.
Suburbicon is rated R for violence, language, and some sexuality.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.