It’s been awhile since I’ve disliked a film that I’ve looked forward to as much as I disliked Suburbicon (which is playing this week at the Toronto International Film Festival). Based partially on a Coen brothers script (we’ll get to the “partially” part, which is a big problem), from the outside looking in this looked like it could be George Clooney’s best-directed film – or at least his best since Good Night and Good Luck. Alas, this is not the case. Suburbicon is such a baffling film that it’s hard to imagine a reasonable person watching a final cut then deciding, “We should charge people money to see this.”
So, I’ve decided to start with a positive, the only one. And, maybe not surprisingly, it’s Oscar Isaac (who is somehow billed third on the poster but has, maybe, ten minutes of screen time). Isaac plays an insurance investigator and seems to be the only person who understands the movie he’s in – and he’s a damned delight when he shows up, giving Suburbicon a much needed breath of fresh air. But, his role is too small to have any real effect, but for those few minutes he’s on screen we get a taste of what Suburbicon could have been.
Okay, let’s talk about that script. Here’s what Clooney and producer Grant Heslov did. They took a script written by the Coen brothers about a man named Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) who conspires with two criminals to kill his wife for both the insurance money and so that he could be free to pursue a relationship with his sister-in-law (the wife and sister-in-law are both played by Julianne Moore). Yes, this does sound a bit like Fargo. Clooney and Heslov also had an idea about making a movie about a 1957 incident surrounding the first black family to move to the suburb of Levittown, Pennsylvania. So they decided to combine these two ideas – and it does not work, at all. It’s really the strangest thing.
Suburbicon opens with a glistening advertisement for people to get away from city life move to the fake ‘50s utopia of Suburbicon. Of course, everyone in the commercial is comically white. We then, briefly, meet a black family who moves in as the white town folks start to freak out – eventually staging protests outside their house. (The thing is, we never get to know this family at all or learn anything about them. They are just there for these constant protests to keep happening.) At this part of the movie, it’s evident that this is what Suburbicon will be about: race relations in a suburban town set in the 1950s