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Movie Review: Suburbicon

Reject false Coens, even if Clooney-shaped.

Review by Brandon Wolfe

Ever since O Brother, Where Art Thou?, George Clooney has been a staple of some of the Coen Brothers’ sillier offerings in the 21st Century. Clooney has also appeared in their iffy Intolerable Cruelty as well as in the much stronger Burn After Reading. He has fashioned such a close working relationship with the Coens that he has now been entrusted with directing a script they’ve written. But just because you’ve worked with the Coens don’t make you the Coens.

The Coens wrote the script for Suburbicon in 1986, shortly after completing Blood Simple, yet never produced it, for whatever reason. But, upon seeing the finished product, it’s clearly of a piece with their oeuvre. The acidic black comedy, the comically boneheaded characters, the caper gone awry, the creatively gruesome deaths are all very familiar. Suburbicon, however, never gels the way that even the lesser Coen efforts do. Some key ingredient didn’t find its way into the crockpot. Actually, make that two key ingredients.


It’s the 1950s and we’re introduced to the spanking new community of Suburbicon, an idyllic little hamlet straight off of Norman Rockwell’s paintbrush. Immediately after being introduced to the place, by way of a cheeky-chipper commercial, we meet the Lodge family. The brood consists of square-as-a-peg patriarch Gardner (Matt Damon, inhabiting his old The Informant! dad-bod), his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore), Rose’s identical-twin sister Margaret (also Moore) and their only son Nicky (Noah Jupe). We’ve barely gotten the introductions out of the way before we find the Lodges swept up in a home invasion by a couple of toughs angling for cash before knocking everyone unconscious with chloroform. Rose never wakes up.

In the aftermath, Margaret moves in to act as Rose’s surrogate, quickly and queasily cozying up to the nebbishy Gardner. When the two criminals show up in a police lineup, Nicky is stunned to find that his father and aunt proclaim not to recognize them, letting them slip back into the wind. We soon find out that an elaborate scheme has been hatched, and just as quickly begins to unravel, messily.

Clooney knows he’s making a Coen Brothers film, but he never seem to figure out which kind of Coen film he’s making. Is he making a zany farce like O Brother? A seriocomic crime meditation like Fargo? A plunge into soul-eroded darkness like No Country for Old Men? The answer is all of the above. Suburbicon has major tonal problems. It’s an impossible film to take the temperature of because it doesn’t know what it’s trying to achieve from scene to scene.


Another problem is that Clooney has tacked on a major subplot in the form of a black family living in the community enduring constant harassment from the wholly white, entirely unwelcoming residents of Suburbicon. While it’s possible that the Coens included this aspect of the film in their original script, it’s the one piece that doesn’t feel a bit like them, yet feels a lot like the admirably socially conscious Clooney. There is positively zero overlap between this subplot and the heinous hijinks of the Lodge family, neither narratively nor thematically. It’s as if an entirely separate film has forcibly intruded into this one like thieves in the night. It’s honestly bizarre that this madcap crime yarn keeps pausing from its loopy carnage to remind us that racism exists. Nothing wrong with the message, of course, but context is key.

Perhaps there’s a reason the Coens never made Suburbicon happen, despite have the clout at several points in their careers to do so. The film feels underrealized, even when it does pick up some much-needed steam in its second half. Damon and Moore don’t make the impression one would expect them to, either, though Oscar Isaac pops up late in the game as a weaselly insurance investigator and walks off with the movie. And the Coens, in the intervening years, have scratched a lot of the same itches seen here in far superior ways. The mechanics of plot are very similar to those of the vastly greater Fargo and there are many moving parts that the brothers seems to have harvested from this script for Burn After Reading. But mostly, the problem is that making a Coen Brothers movie cannot fall to anyone outside of the family. If anyone could make Coen Brothers movies, their films wouldn’t be as unique as they are. Put it this way: Clooney is trying to sell Fop to a bunch of Dapper Dan men. We will accept no substitutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.


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