So this is the part of the review where I’d normally recap the plot of the movie I’m reviewing, but for “Suburbicon,” that seems like a momentous task simply given that concisely recapping the plot proper of this George Clooney directed feature film is a little difficult given how all-over-the-place the story of “Suburbicon” actually is. But I’m never one to shy away from a challenge, so let me give this a go. The motion picture starts with an African-American family moving into Suburbicon, a supposedly idyllic suburban paradise, in the year 1959 much to the intense anger of their white neighbors, who sign petitions to get the new neighbors kicked out and yell and scream outside the family’s house each night.
Shortly after the poor plight of this family is introduced, we’re then tossed into the storyline that makes up the majority of the screentime of “Suburbicon,” which revolves around Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), a seemingly normal father/husband who is in deep trouble with the mob. In fact, he’s in so deep that a mobster he owes money to kills his wife (played by Julianne Moore, who also plays the wife’s sister) and threatens to come back to kill his kid if Lodge doesn’t shut up about this. From there, Lodge earns the further anger of the mob and the suspicions of an insurance claims investigator named Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac).
Now, you’re probably, very understandably, wondering “Now wait Doug, how do those two plotlines intersect?” The weird thing is…they don’t. Not really at all. The two kids of our two main families are shown to be friends in two scenes as well as the simply awful final shot of the movie, but that’s about it in terms of direct plot correlations between these two subplots and there’s not even thematic tissue to help bridge the gap between these two tales. The screenplay, which was once penned by The Coen Brothers before George Clooney and Grant Heslov gave it an overhaul, is such an absolute mess that the fact that these two main plotlines can’t coexist together isn’t even its biggest issue.
No, the largest problem on a storytelling front is just how unpleasant and uninteresting the Gardner Lodge mob stuff is. It seems like the story is supposed to channel farcical Coen Brothers fare, the kind of stuff where normal people and/or dimwits get into crime or other unsavory shenanigans that are way above their paygrade which constitutes classics like “Fargo” or “Burn After Reading.” Clooney’s appeared in multiple Coen Brothers farce films before (one of which was the supremely underrated 2016 old Hollywood tribute “Hail, Caesar!”), so it’s shocking he seems to misunderstand completely how to execute this type of movie. Instead of going for dark comedy that has a thoughtful edge to it, the ballad of Gardner Lodge is played like a normal serious gangster movie and that’s just a terrible move on all fronts.
Gardner and his family are just too thinly sketched as characters to work as involving drama, while their story doesn’t deliver enough laughs to function as any kind of comedy. It’s just so utterly uninvolving that it’s staggering how such talented actors got coerced into bringing to life such a staggeringly inert plot like this. Only Oscar Isaac (a guy who really couldn’t phone in a performance if he tried) has any life to him in his supporting role in this portion of the film, and even he’s not around enough to make much of a difference in the overall lackluster quality of the movie. The actual filmmaking on display is uninspired as the storytelling with Robert Elswit delivering some of his most rote work as a cinematographer here and even the sets and costumes don’t show much imagination in terms of recreating the visual aesthetic of America in the late 1950’s.
And then there’s the plotline with the African-American family which is almost rage-inducing in how much it drops the ball in its execution. If you’re going to have this plotline co-exist with Goodfellas-Will-Hunting, then why not take the time to flesh out these characters as human beings, give them distinct personalities and humanize them in the face of the dehumanizing racism they experience on a constant basis? I don’t think the dad in this newly arrived family has any lines of dialogue to speak of and the mom — who at least gets a handful of lines to herself — has absolutely no personality that I could discern. It’s vital that we confront the topic of racism in America in our art, but we need to do it in a way that actually lends humanity and depth to the oppressed instead of just saying “Racism is bad” and ignoring the chances for exploring the stories of the disenfranchised.
That’s especially egregious when the story that “Suburbicon” chooses to focus on instead is so lame-brained and poorly assembled. Heck, “Suburbicon’s” main storyline is so lackluster in execution that it manages to make the sight of Julianne Moore as twin sisters boring. Yes, I think it’s fair that George Clooney’s newest directorial effort is a massive misfire and an incompetently assembled one at that. This feels like the kind of movie that wants to say something important or profound but just comes up empty, mostly because it eschews the chance to explore potentially interesting storylines in favor of ineptly rendered and rote mobster drama.
Douglas Laman is a film critic,who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends and… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com