Mrs Meyers (Karimah Westbrook) tries to ignore taunting neighbours. Picture: Paramount Pictures- Black Bear Pictures
Mrs Meyers (Karimah Westbrook) tries to ignore taunting neighbours. Picture: Paramount Pictures- Black Bear Pictures

Clooney's provocative ‘Suburbicon’ as messed up as era it reflects

By Ann Hornaday Time of article published Oct 26, 2017

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An uneasy, tonally awkward testament to the sour-ball heart of the candy-coloured American Dream, George Clooney’s Suburbicon can’t be described as a home run. 

But as an artefact of its era, it bristles with genuine discernment and rage that cannot be denied.

A burlesque of racist panic that eventually gives way to Hitchcockian horror - before devolving into grotesquerie and gore - this is a film whose unwieldy origins are inscribed in nearly every frame: Clooney and his collaborator Grant Heslov were working on a drama about the integration of the white, middle-class of Levittown, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s when Clooney recalled a Coen brothers script he’d once been cast in, a dark satire, Suburbicon.

He decided to merge the two projects, resulting in a movie that possesses the stylised, lethal-Looney Tunes slapstick we’ve come to associate with Coenesque humour, as well as the fiery, thinly disguised polemic of Clooney projects such as Good Night, and Good Luck.

The result is a film of frequently provocative and queasily effective parts that never comes together as an effective whole. 

As Suburbicon opens, the audience views an industrial-style film introducing the Edenic title community, a model of postwar prosperity and promise that serves as a “melting pot” of diversity - white families from as far away as New York, Ohio, even Mississippi. 

While chirpy music plays, the Dick-and-Jane vibe comes to a screeching halt when the postman, who knows everyone by name, stops by the Meyers home, only to discover that the African-American woman who answers the door isn’t their maid, but Mrs Meyers herself.

Impassioned meetings, petitions and finally bursts of vigilante violence ensue, while the neighbours, the Lodges, face their own threats. 

While young Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) embarks on a baseball-centric friendship with Andy Meyers (Tony Espinosa), his parents Gardner and Rose (Matt Damon and Julianne Moore) become embroiled in a bizarre crime whose cascading consequences recall Fargo, both in ridiculousness and unsparing cruelty.

With its Mad Men-era aesthetic and Alexandre Desplat’s marvellous orchestral score, Suburbicon exerts a seductive, fetishistic pull, made all the more delicious by the fact that Moore is cast in a Vertigo-like double role. 

Damon delivers a spot-on performance as the Coen archetype, the beleaguered Everyman hoist on his own bumblingly self-destructive petard, and Jupe thoroughly erases his British roots to convincingly channel trusting, wide-eyed innocence and the horrific dawning of its destruction.

Clooney’s allegorical point that the wholesomeness of the Lodge household is just as bogus as the self-proclaimed virtue of the racists terrorising the black family next door is an astute one. 

There are moments in Suburbicon that feel just as clear and damning as the sequence in last year’s I Am Not Your Negro when scenes from Doris Day movies were inter-cut with images of lynchings that were happening at the same time.

As a portrait of the venality, perversion and deceit at the heart of white privilege and obliviousness, Suburbicon chooses its targets with insight and reckless brio.

But the movie’s aim falters at crucial junctures. When meeting reporters at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, Clooney noted that he recut Suburbicon after the 2016 presidential election but long before the racist march in Charlottesville, Virginia - fired by his own ire and sense of betrayal, and his sense that the film needed to be angrier, less silly (he excised an entire sequence featuring Josh Brolin that was intended as comic relief).

If Clooney was eerily prescient in that regard, Suburbicon nonetheless can’t navigate the tricky tonal shifts without feeling disjointed and divided against itself. As kitschiness gives way to savagery, the tonal balance finally and fatally succumbs.

Simultaneously, the Meyers - who are played by Karimah Westbrook and Leith M Burke - turn out to be strangely marginal to a film that begins to suffer from the very thing it abhors.

If Suburbicon’s intentions are noble in focusing on white pathology, it does so at the narrative expense of African-American characters whose story is relegated to literal background noise.

Which isn’t to say that a bitter truth can’t be found in the Suburbicon carnage, which might be all the more stinging for being so imperfectly expressed. 

Clooney has made a film as confounding, disturbing, messed up and infuriating as the era it reflects, for better and for worse.

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