A quiet, all-white neighbourhood in '50s America is shaken up when a black family arrives and is soon met with open hostility by its neighbours. Meanwhile, a mild-mannered office worker (Matt Damon) attempts to keep his family together following the murder of his wife (Julieanne Moore) with the help of her identical twin sister.
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atching through Suburbicon, it should come as no surprise that the film's screenplay was crafted by two distinctive sets of writers - the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, and George Clooney and Grant Heslov - and features two uniquely different plots that run parallel to one another. In some films, this can work - but it often requires that there's some kind of connecting fibre between them, not just the fact that they're sharing the same screen as one another. In a lot of ways, this is the central problem with Suburbicon. You essentially have two films hemmed into one, and neither comes out of it in great shape. In fact, one gets dumped along the way when it suits while the other, far less interesting one, is given unreasonable time.
ne of these plots reads like vintage Coen Brothers, to the point that if you've seen any of their films in the last twenty-odd years, you've seen this story before - and done better. Matt Damon is Gardner Lodge, your typical Coenesque office drone who is befallen by tragedy when his wife, Julieanne Moore, is murdered by two robbers in the middle of the night. A police investigation ensues, with Lodge relying more and more on his twin sister-in-law, also played by Moore. His young son, played by Noah Jupe, seems to understand that something is terribly amiss with the situation, particularly when the twin sister effectively adopts the role of mother and even dyes her as such. All while this is happening, the situation with their black neighbours grows more toxic and violent, yet they seem resilient and determined to maintain their dignity in the face of horrifyingly open racism.
side from a scene-stealing performance by Oscar Isaac as an insurance investigator, the film putters along in a reasonably predictable fashion. Both Damon and Moore give outsized performances with all the goofiness you'd expect, but so what? The central problem with Suburbicon is that absolutely none of the characters in the film - except for the innocent son - are ever remotely likeable, or even compelling enough that you'd want to see what happens to them. Even the police officer who investigates the murder, played by the always reliable Jack Conley, seems unwilling to help the black family that are plagued on a nightly basis by racist protestors, so that's him out. The only one, as mentioned, that's remotely likeable is the son and he is essentially a passive presence in the story rather than an active one.
onsidering that both Josh Brolin and Woody Harrelson were originally cast in this film and then subsequently cut of it in edits, there's probably a completely different version of this film lying around somewhere that might make more sense than the finished product. Indeed, you get the feeling that director George Clooney hacked the film together with efficiency rather than efficacy in mind. It's a real shame, because you only need to look at the likes of Good Night And Good Luck or even Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind to know that he's more than capable of burrowing into this time period and coming back with something special - and had he made the film without the Coen Brothers' half of a script, it might have worked out better. A lot of the problems with Suburbicon's script lie in the fact that the best people to adapt a Coen Brothers script is the Coen Brothers. This makes three out of four scripts that the Coens have written for directors other than themselves that have ultimately failed; Bridge Of Spies working largely because you had Spielberg behind the camera, Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance in front of it, and Matt Charman doing a polish on that script.
hile it has some effective moments of comedy here and there, and the production design works in its favour, Suburbicon sadly fails to live up to the promise of its cast, director and script.