Suburbicon: Clooney’s Déjà vu Critique of White Americana

With Suburbicon, the multi-talented and multi-hyphenated George Clooney has taken a noirish tale written by the Coen brothers in the 1980s and has reshaped it to his own specifications–his personal and filmic temperament.

End result is a sporadically entertaining movie that lacks definite identity: Suburbicon is not fresh or sharp enough as satire of all-white America in 1959.  Nor it is effective as noir thriller in the manner of the Coens’ Blood Simple and other noir classics. Several characters and lot points borrow heavily from Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir masterpiece, Double Indemnity.

Surprisingly, Clooney shows no particular affinity, visual or emotional, to this genre, even if his narrative borrows from noir classics like Double Indemnity (the smart insurance agent, here played by Oscar Isaacs)) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (a couple who kills and delude themselves they can get away with murder).

Watching the film, you wonder what the Joel and Ethan Coen would have made with their text? A scary noir comedy a la 1996 Fargo? Or how David Lynch would have handled the story of evil lurking just beneath the surface green grass, a subject he tackled in his 1986 masterpiece, Blue Velvet.

Paramount will release the picture, which world premiered in Venice to mixed critical response, and then also played in Toronto Fest, on October 27.

After a fun start of showing postcards of a dream place to live, modeled on Levittown Pennsylvania, the postman mistakes the only black woman in town to be the maid. The main story focuses on a family, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), and young son Nicky (Noah Jupe).

When two thugs invade the house and torture its residents, the frail Rose dies, opening the door for a romance between Gardner and her twin sister Maggie (also Moore), scoundrels who scheme to get Rose’s life insurance. The otherwise familiar saga is punctuated by vivid appearances of secondary figures, such as Oscar Isaac as an insurance claim investigator, who smells rot but turns out to be corrupt as well.

To make the movie timelier, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have added an interracial angle, a single black family, whose existence leads to contempt, isolation, and overt violence by angry white mobs.  But that element remains underdeveloped– the black couple are stereotypes, with no characters or dialogue.

To his credit, Clooney has maintained a consistent perspective, showing most of the events, which go from bad to worse and worst, from the point of view of an innocent boy, who is thrown into a chaotic and dark reality, way beyond his age or ability to comprehend rationally the evil that his father and ste mother represent.

Suburbicon, make no mistake, bears the signature of Clooney, whose liberal democratic politics are well known.  Though he is critical of the status quo (then and now), he still firmly believes in the future of America.  Indeed, despite all the shenanigans and deaths, the movie ends on an optimistic note (unearned in my view), suggesting a new friendship between the neighboring white and black boys.

Put in perspective, while Suburbicon is a déjà vu experience–it is still better directed than Clooney’s former efforts, the disappointing Ides of March and the terrible Monuments Men, but it’s not as poignant as Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney’s best work to date, which is set in the same era as Suburbicon.