George Clooney’s second film as director in 2005 – ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ – was one of my favourite films of the 2000s. Concise, sharp, riveting and intelligently done; it was fully deserving of the critical praise and Academy Award nominations it got. At this time it seemed certain that Clooney would be a director of note for decades.
Alas the films he’s directed since have largely been critical disappointments and his latest film – ‘Suburbicon’ – is such a woeful misfire that one can only conclude that ‘Good Night, And Good Luck’ was a fluke exception to the rule.
Set in 1959 American suburbia, the home of middle-class Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is invaded by two thugs whose actions lead to the death of his wife Rose (Julianne Moore). Everyone in town is shocked by the event and supports Gardner and his family. But when Gardner’s young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) sees his dad & Rose’s sister Margaret (also Moore) fail to ID the two culprits in a police lineup it’s clear there’s much more to this than meets the eye.
Suburbicon fails on multiple levels. One reason is that it seems to treat the fact that seemingly affluent and content 1950s Middle America was – gasp! – in fact full of hypocrisy, contradictions and complacency as something fresh and insightful. Somehow Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov (working off an old Coen brothers screenplay) seem to have ignored the endless TV shows and films documenting this in recent decades that have made that assumption a well-worn cliché by now.
And in anycase, the film does virtually nothing interesting with this assumption as it’s all lazy surface-detail observations; apparently mentioning the central family is Episcopalian numerous times is as far as it goes for insight. The central character of Gardner is a total void as we never begin to understand his motivations as to why he behaves the way he does. Dealt with such an empty vessel of a character, Damon struggles haplessly.
As well, Clooney’s is aiming for the skewered crime-noir that original writers and his regular collaborators the Coen brothers are famous for but he’s simply not up to the task. Especially in the early segments, his direction is telegraphed and heavy-handed and what should be an intense and compelling crime mystery feels tedious and dreary. The home invasion scene early in the film is one of the least-interesting types of those scenes I can recall and feels twice as long as it should be.
But the film’s biggest error is a subplot awkwardly inserted in (which has no real connection to the main plot and could’ve easily been excised from the film) is about the arrival of a black family in the all-white neighbourhood. Reactions go from initial bemusement and shock (the local postman presumes the wife is the house maid) to outrage and a violent and vicious mob.
This subplot is so cartoonish and relentless that its impact is zero. An early scene of a town meeting where local residents voice their disapproval at non-whites being part of their town feels like a meeting of overt virulent racists from the KKK as opposed to what many 50s white suburbanites would be like. The film’s racial commentary is so heavy-handed that it makes ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?’ seem like a subtle take on race relations.
There are a few positive aspects to the film. A scene where in response to Nicky’s displeasure Margaret turns from a sweet and sunny persona to someone full of deviousness and manipulation is well done and acted. Also the scene where an insurance investigator (well played by Oscar Issac) interrogates Margaret is atypically riveting. And the 1950s style and visuals are pleasing on the eye. But in truth this film has very few pleasures or satisfaction to offer.
There has been talk in social media that the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal and Damon & Clooney’s associations with the disgraced producer ensured this film was doing to be DOA at the box office when it opened and perhaps that’s true to an extent. But even if that scandal hadn’t occurred ‘Suburbicon’ would’ve sunk anyway as it doesn’t succeed on any level.