George Clooney with a Coen Brothers script is a formula for magic. However, what happens when he’s the director and not the star?
Every time the Coen Brothers work on a new film, it’s sort of like receiving a Christmas present. You have no idea what you’re getting, but it’s probably going to be great. However, in recent years, their screenplays have become less and less groundbreaking and more and more mundane. It’s hard to imagine the brilliant writers of No Country For Old Men, and Fargo, to name a few, have only made one truly great film in the past decade in Inside Llewyn Davis. It seems their unique storytelling devices and tricks are growing smaller and smaller. With this film, Suburbicon, they tackle quintessential Coen brothers concept, that of adding shades of color and blood to typical, slow, and safe Americana. However, even with what seems to be a safe bet for them turns out to be a meanderingly long episode of Law and Order set in the 1950’s suburbs.
While the Coen Brothers produced a flop of a script, George Clooney certainly wasn’t capable of making this project watchable. That is no knock against Clooney, because only a director of legendary status could’ve made this thing watchable. At surface level, Clooney does a fairly decent job throughout the film and helps to create what is a beautifully looking film. A majority of the performances by the supporting characters are very well done and Clooney does a good job of creating tension and launching surprises. He brings a very old school American Cinema feel to the film and it really helps to bring out a unique look on the story. However, the film is lacking in almost every other way. The acting throughout by the leads was lacking, which, considering being directed by a great actor in George Clooney, is a bit baffling. The majority of the issues with the film lie with the story and Clooney’s inability to properly reconcile the main plot and the vibrantly unique world in which it’s set.
The performances throughout are uneven, especially considering the well renowned leads of Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. Damon plays a suburban father who longs to be free. You can tell from the performance that he’s trying to portray the character as caged, restrained, and almost helpless, but what it reads as is something more akin to apathetic indifference and boredom. He does manage to pull some good bits of a performance towards the end of the film, however, it only begs the question as to why he didn’t do that throughout the film? Julianne Moore may have had fewer of these bored and apathetic moments, but she too was holding back for much of the film. The real standouts from the film were the supporting characters, who for the most part, nailed their performances. A surprising exception to this is Oscar Isaac who aims to be a quirky Coen brothers character but ends up being a badly portrayed caricature portrayed with the level of talent expected at a high school drama class. The young boy in the film, Noah Jupe, truly put on a great performance, especially considering his age.
The script is not only boring but fraught with issues. The plot is very simple and something for suiting for television, not film. There must be at least a dozen episodes of CSI and other such crime procedurals that have a similar if not the same story. The only differentiating factor is the time period. To top it off is this subplot of an African American family moving into the entirely white and “perfect” suburb. This subplot is a mix of underutilized and underemphasized. The purpose of this storytelling device is seemingly the same as that of the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis or the meteor Alejandro González Iñárritu utilizes in his films, to foreshadow and add a spectacular parallel to the ultimate climax and explosion of a situation that is bound to happen at the end of the film. However, due to a mix of Clooney not portraying this as a proper parallel and the script telling this as it’s own side story within the film, it all just comes off as a second film inside of a film. That’s a shame, because all of the performances and the stories of those characters were quite interesting. It is possible that I’m wrong and that subplot was meant to just be another facet of the story, then it is utterly unnecessary and adds nothing to the plot.
Reflecting on the film, I’m left wondering as to what this film could have been. After doing some research on the story of the film, I’ve found it isn’t entirely a work of fiction. In fact, the subplot involving the African American family moving into a “picturesque” suburb is based off of a real family that moved to Levittown, Pennsylvania. The name of the family in the film is the same as it’s factual parallel, the Myer family. Their little known story happened to be instrumental to the civil rights moment with Mrs. Myer even being hailed as the Rosa Parks of the North. There is a deep story worth telling there that is certainly more interesting than the main plot with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. More emphasis on this, the only redeemable part of the film, would’ve made for a movie that was altogether watchable and most likely enjoyable.
This film is a great example of what happens when the creators behind a project don’t visualize whether or not the idea works best on film or television, because this concept spread across several episodes would’ve probably worked out wonderfully on television. However, on film, it’s a mess. True Coen brother diehards will find redeemable qualities in this film, and fans of Clooney’s directorial work will find more, but at the end of the day, it’s a below average film.