With an all-star cast, first-rate writing by the Coen brothers and seasoned directorship by George Clooney, Suburbicon promised to be one of the year’s most original comedies. At least that’s what you’d guess by its trailer, which suggests a movie that thrives off of uncomfortable, offbeat humor. Viewers should beware, however—Suburbicon tenuously mixes half-baked murder mystery with cliche racial commentary.
Those who come into this movie familiar with the Coen brothers’ filmography and style of humor will be wildly excited at first and then utterly dismayed. Set in 1959 in America’s fictional neighborhood Suburbicon, this movie tells the story of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), a middle-age man with a perfect family, a generically corporate job and a well-manicured lawn. Trouble begins to brew as thugs suddenly take him and his family hostage in their home. Chaos ensues as Lodge exacts revenge on the men responsible for his wife’s murder—or doesn’t, because this movie is a massive flop.
Damon is flanked by superb talent in this movie, including Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac and a young Noah Jupe. Clooney’s and the Coens’ legacies in Hollywood speak for themselves in this way. Suburbicon’s acting is solid, despite the movie lacking any level of character development. Often the cunning and upright hero, Damon takes on a simple-minded, ambivalent character. Noble in his dedication to his family but outsmarted by his adversaries, Damon’s character is the archetypal protagonist in tragic comedy. His failures and shortcomings are highlighted with brutal honesty. The audience laughs at how pathetic Lodge is so they don’t cry at how much he reminds them of themselves.
At least, that’s what Clooney was aiming for and what Joel and Ethan Coen perfected before him with 2008’s Burn After Reading and 2016’s Hail, Caesar! Yet the audience never gets a chance to interact with Lodge or his wife. The movie opens with a jarring introduction to Suburbicon’s racial prejudice before jumping straight to the Lodge’s home break-in.
Suburbicon strings the audience along from there, (mis)trusting suspense and A-list casting instead of narrative logic. Who is this little boy? Why do we care that “there are men in the house”? Why aren’t we seeing his dad’s fa- OH IT’S MATT DAMON, what a surprise! Jason Bourne in plaid and horn-rimmed glasses—this movie is already great! (Not really)
But wait, who are the Lodges? Why is their immediate crisis significant? What if Lodge is a pimp and deserves to be robbed and have his wife murdered? (Spoiler: Damon’s character isn’t a pimp) Clooney throws us right into the messy, prejudiced heart of 1959 America in Suburbicon without necessary character development or setup. Also, how on earth does this African-American family next door fit into the story? Yes, Lodge’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe) develops a friendship with the family’s son, but this subplot still feels more like a Hallmark commercial than a big-budget Hollywood film.
In my mind, Suburbicon is made worse by comparison to what it could have been. All of the right ingredients are there: first-class writers, a director versed in the genre, superb actors/actresses and a story with tremendous potential. This movie just focused on all of the wrong elements by beating the audience over the head with racial politics rather than immersing them in the story. While his work suffers, Clooney must be credited nonetheless for trying to broach sociopolitics in a genre often devoid of such weight. This doesn’t make Suburbicon any less of a flop, unfortunately. Timely but not worth your time, Suburbicon falls flat with a 5/10.