Film Review: Suburbicon

by Carrie Kahn on October 27, 2017

Clooney emulates the Coens in adequate film noir      

Maggie (Julianne Moore) and her brother-in-law Gardner (Matt Damon) have an unwanted conversation with a visitor.

George Clooney is clearly a huge fan of the Coen Brothers. After starring in four of their films (Hail, Caesar!; Burn After Reading; O Brother, Where Art Thou; Intolerable Cruelty), he tries his hand at directing one of their screenplays with Suburbicon, marking his first return to the director’s chair since 2014’s The Monuments Men. The result is more successful than that mostly forgettable attempt, but his fan-boy energy permeates his new film almost to distraction. Tonally and stylistically, the picture is an unabashed imitation of a Coen Brothers production, which, if you’re a Coen Brothers fan, is super, but does mean that Clooney offers no cinematic originality here.

Set in the late 1950s, the picture is film noir with a winking edge, sort of a combination of the best of the Coen Bros. classics Fargo and Blood Simple. Set in a fictional Levittown-esque planned community called Suburbicon, the Coens’ story (which Clooney and writer Grant Heslov also contributed to) looks at what happens when the first African American family moves into the conservative, lily white town. The vitriolic town hall meetings protesting the move and the hate-filled harassment of the new family are shocking and painful to watch, but, unfortunately and depressingly, not so different than much of what is going on in the country today. This integration storyline isn’t the picture’s primary focus, however; instead, it serves as a counterpoint to the film’s main narrative, which concerns the seemingly picture perfect neighbors of the new African American family.

On paper, these neighbors, the Lodges, look like Suburbicon’s ideal residents: Dad Gardner (Matt Damon) is in finance; son Nicky (Noah Jupe) loves baseball, and Mom Rose and her twin sister Maggie (Julianne Moore, in a dual role) spend afternoons chatting on the sunny front porch. But, this being a Coen Bros. script after all, that superficial veneer masks a dark malevolence, which plays out in fine film noir fashion, similar not just to Blood Simple and Fargo, but also to Blue Velvet, David Lynch’s classic of the what-lies-beneath, evil suburb genre.

Father (Matt Damon, l.) and son (Noah Jupe) have a chat.

Without giving too much away, since, although the story isn’t wholly unique, it unspools well enough under Clooney’s capable hands, even if it feels a little been-there-done-that, suffice to say that a home invasion, infidelity, hired hit men, and unplanned murders all factor into the Lodges’ story. Where the picture strays a bit is in the heavy handedness in which the contrast is emphasized between the perceived town “evil” – the disruption caused by the perfectly nice and normal African American family moving in, and the legitimate, bona fide evil next door to them – the iconic white nuclear family who no one looks twice at, but who are actually the cause of the neighborhood’s sordid depravity and morally reprehensible destruction. This point is laid on just a bit too thick, in several scenes that cut between an almost cartoonish mob of epic proportions descending on the African American family’s home, and the actual, real, and totally ignored bloodshed taking place in the Lodge home right next door.

Clooney has assembled a top notch cast, though, which helps elevate the picture from being just a middling Coen Bros. knock off. Damon is terrific as the tightly wound Gardner, whose eerily calm and formal manner with his son Nicky not only reflects the uninvolved father trope of the late ‘50s, but also belies a simmering cauldron of suppressed emotion and passion. Moore is equally adept at playing a Stepford wife type who isn’t as sweet and simple as she lets on. And as the Mayers, the new African American family, Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook as the parents and Tony Espinosa as their son Andy bring layers of hurt, grace, dignity, and fear to their performances that no doubt weren’t always easy to portray (watch especially for a scene in a grocery store, and how Westbrook’s Mrs. Mayer maintains her composure while being treated absolutely horribly).

Insurance investigator Roger (Oscar Isaac) visits the Lodge home with a few questions.

In smaller roles, Coen Bros. staple Oscar Isaac has a nice turn as an insurance investigator whose wily confidence and I’m-smarter-than-you bravado bring him a surprising comeuppance, and Gary Basaraba as the twins’ brother Mitch shifts an annoying uncle into the moral compass of the movie. But the real standout here is young Noah Jupe, whose portrayal of Nicky is truly award-worthy and by far the picture’s best. It’s rare to find a child actor who doesn’t fall prey to the too-precocious or too-cute trap, and Jupe sideswipes those pitfalls to create a complex and unexpected young hero you won’t soon forget.

And while the movie as a whole isn’t one that will stand among the Coens’ best written, it has enough Coen-infused edge and black comedy to please the Brothers’ die-hard fans. As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and what Clooney does here certainly flatters the Coens; what it will do for Clooney’s career, however, besides make him look like an outstanding mimic, remains to be seen.


Suburbicon opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

More Posts - Twitter

Read Also:

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: