Two new release choices greeted me upon my arrival to the brand spanking new Curzon cinema in my hometown of Oxford this week, both with great promise. After deciding that my early morning good mood wasn’t quite prepared to experience the inevitable horrors of human nature that Michael Haneke’s Happy End had to offer, I instead opted for Suburbicon, the latest directorial effort from George Clooney and also a film that I had heard had an unusually dark undertone.
And whilst I am pleased to report a five star cinema experience at the new Curzon, I unfortunately can’t say quite the same for Suburbicon. With a script worked on by the Coen brothers and Clooney himself, the film tells a disjointed and multi directional story set in Suburbicon, a classic cookie cutter 1950s neighbourhood that has much more going on under the surface than one might think. The narrative follows two distinct threads, the first being a insurance murder involving businessman Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), his sister-in-law Margaret (also Julianne Moore) and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe), and the second being a social commentary sideline concerning the moving in to the all-white neighbourhood of a black family played by Karimah Westbrook, Leith Burke and Tony Espinosa.
In trying contain these two separate, only slightly interconnected stories, in the same fairly slimline picture, Suburbicon ends up feeling like a film doesn’t really know what it is doing. There are certainly elements to enjoy and be impressed by in both narrative threads, but the lack of laser precision and focus in execution leads to an overwhelming feeling of disjointedness that the film never really recovers from. The events happening on screen feel extremely detached from any kind of audience experience that is being had, and whilst this can often work in a whimsical Wes Anderson or, indeed, usual Coen brothers way, there is just something about Suburbicon that fails to persuade the viewer to dig in for the ride in the same sort of fashion.
There is certainly a level of kitsch and quirk that I enjoy in a black comedy, from the vintage aesthetic to the unmistakable touches of Coen brothers magic, but sadly there just isn’t enough magic to go around to make the film a complete success. The quality of the dialogue comes and goes in patches, as does the overall strength and intrigue of the story that the filmmakers are trying to tell. The central romp involving Gardner Lodge and his hapless criminal intentions and the much darker, much nastier racist drama unfolding next door are at complete jarring odds with each other, and not in a satisfying artistic way, just a messy, unenjoyable way. The two threads simply don’t weave together effectively enough to make Suburbicon anything more than a curious but ultimately wasted opportunity. In fact, I think I would have preferred if the balance of focus between the opposing narratives was switched entirely.
Though you can clearly tell that is wasn’t my favourite, the film is boosted enormously by its impressive central cast. When you have the likes of Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac leading the way, you can rest assured that, if nothing else, you are going to be able to enjoy some fun performances admit the mess, and this is precisely what happens. As Gardner Lodge, Matt Damon is another in the long line of Coen brothers creations, something of an everyman who flounders his way through criminality. Though he overarching characteristic is one of reserved foolishness, Damon does muster a degree of sinister that helps in the darker moments of the plot. Julianne Moore has the fun of playing twin sisters Rose and Margaret, two very different characters with different mannerisms and motivations. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that she is short changed, but perhaps it might be fair to say that Moore might not have been challenged as much as we know that she can be, and unfortunately her double performance ends up being a solid if not slightly forgettable one.
Oscar Isaac brings a temporary but much needed spark to the proceedings as a cocky, confident insurance claims investigator. Alongside Damon, his character feels most like ‘classic Coen brothers’, and its safe to say that everything classed that way in the film makes up its best qualities. I can’t help but feel that were it not for the great cast list and a few stand out performances, the film would be even more forgettable than it is going to prove to be.
Overall, Suburbicon feels very much like a great kernel of a Coen brothers idea that, when incorporated in to a wider, George Clooney fronted vision, turned in to a rather unfortunate misjudged mess. If you took the two conflicting narrative threads and made a fully fleshed out, appropriately toned picture for each, then they could make for two really enjoyable films. As a strange combination in a single two hour stretch, however, it just doesn’t work.