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
Then we meet Matt Damon’s Gardner Lodge and the story shifts to his whole plot about killing his wife. His story literally has nothing to do with the black family that lives next door. Nothing. For the life of me, I don’t even remember Gardner even acknowledging the protests near his street. I suspect this is supposed to be clever, that Gardner is so invested in his own schemes that he doesn’t even realize (or care) what’s happening to his new neighbors, and the people in the town don’t care that Gardner is committing crimes right under their noses because they are too busy terrorizing the black family. In reality, it feels like two completely separate stories that have nothing to do with each other. It makes no sense that these two storylines are in the same movie.
I cannot stress enough how this Frankenstein’s monster of a script just doesn’t go together. The best example I can come up with is imagine watching Fargo, only there’s periodically a subplot about a family next door, that we never really learn much about, who are being harassed by people in the town because they are black. But these neighbors never once interact with William H. Macy’s character. That’s kind of what Suburbicon feels like, only nothing comes anywhere close to the quality of Fargo (except Oscar Isaac).
Have you ever tried to will yourself to like a movie while watching it? I had been looking so forward to Suburbicon, I tried this trick. I tried to convince myself that even though this movie made little sense, it would all pay off in the end. It does not pay off in the end. And, to this point, Suburbicon is firmly my biggest disappointment of the Toronto Film Festival, if not the biggest disappointment of the year.
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