It’s kind of hard to imagine that Suburbicon is (1) a real movie and (2) is a real movie released in theaters and (3) is a real movie released in theaters with so many talented people behind its creation. There are a few movies every year that are so fascinatingly bad—but awful, let’s make that clear—that you can’t quite look away from the trainwreck that plays on the screen. Suburbicon is one of those movies. We’ll be wondering where it all went wrong for years, assuming we remember it for that long.
The film, which is based on a script by the Coen brothers written in the mid-1980s, is set in suburbia in the 1950s. It features two parallel stories, which almost never intersect. The main one follows Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge, an everyman. He’s so bland that you’ll struggle to remember anything about him. Anyway, he commits insurance fraud by hiring a couple of gangsters to kill his wife (Julianne Moore), so that he and his wife’s sister (also Moore) can collect the money and disappear—with or without their kid (Noah Jupe).
The second story, for which we only really get snippets, follows an African-American family who moves into the neighborhood. They are constantly pestered by the majority of the residents because they are black and this is 1950s America. The film wants to be a dark comedy following the aftermath of the murder and a social satire about the seedy (racist) underbelly of suburbia. It fails at both.
The first story is moderately surprising at first simply because it’s so different from what the trailers promised, but after you learn that this is the direction Suburbicon is headed, it becomes pretty predictable. Even more “shocking” turns feel pedestrian, the whole thing is pretty dull, and almost all of the dark comedy we can presume was in the original screenplay has been washed away. Oh, it still looks and at times feels like a Coen brothers movie, but that’s only because George Clooney’s lesser directorial outings feel like Coen-lite films—and it’s even worse when they are writers of the screenplay, it turns out.
Suburbicon tries to mix a crime story with a social commentary and winds up butchering both.
Our second story is deliberately over-the-top. At least, it feels over-the-top—a conglomerate compilation of several horrific incidents. But it has no teeth. And it doesn’t give the victims of the racism any semblance of character. If we learn the characters’ names, I don’t remember them. We hardly learn anything about them. And while I wager this is part of the point—that’s how their neighbors see them, after all—it doesn’t work for the movie or give us more personal-driven sympathy.
The “point,” we eventually learn, of having the two stories is to have this crazy and violent crime saga involving a while family that nobody pays any attention to because everyone is focused on the peaceful black family who hasn’t done anything wrong. This isn’t a bad idea in theory but when neither story works on its own, we struggle to care about the purpose of the entire film. Plus, it feels like it should have a bigger bite than it does—it’s ultimately rather blasé and it’s hard to work up any sort of emotion for it.
The acting, for the most part, is fine but unspectacular. Matt Damon plays his everyman pretty well, while Julianne Moore, in dual roles, is a little bland. Oscar Isaac shows up for two scenes and it’s in those two scenes that Suburbicon actually becomes fun—an indication of the movie that could have been. The Coen tone comes through and you can see how this could have worked. Noah Jupe is a bad kid actor, while nobody else makes much of an impression. Even the gangsters are disappointingly dull.
Suburbicon tries to mix a crime story with a social commentary and winds up butchering both, creating a fascinating mess. It’s a boring watch but an interesting study—the type of movie nobody should watch but everybody should read up on. Where did it all go wrong? Who knows. But it has too much talent in front of and behind the camera to be this big of a disaster. Ultimately, it fails to do anything but put its audience to sleep and provide a version of history that is CliffsNotes depth. What a waste.
Conclusion: Suburbicon is a fascinating mess.
Recommendation: While Suburbicon isn’t worth watching, it’ll be interesting for those who like to try to figure out how it all went so wrong.