Venice + Toronto 2017: Clooney’s Suburbicon

“The names Joel and Ethan Coen pop up on a lot of screenplays these days (Bridge of Spies,Unbroken), now that they’re getting credit for the kind of script-polishing they used to do anonymously,” begins Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “But Suburbicon marks the first time a script that could have been a full-blown major Coen brothers film has been brought to the screen by someone else. The movie, directed by George Clooney, who along with his partner Grant Heslov re-wrote an old unproduced Coen brothers project (all four are now credited), stars Matt Damon as a dour, weaselly, amateur family-man criminal in the U.S. suburbs of 1959, and it’s clearly a close cousin to Fargo.

The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney finds that “the material has some nasty charms, for sure. But it pushes too hard from the start, then steadily goes off the rails from dark to dyspeptic, lacking the originality, bite or tonal consistency to make up for dipping from a very familiar James M. Cain well. Its bigger problem is a timely subplot about virulent racism among white Americans that comes off as a mishandled afterthought.”

“Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) has a young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and a surly, wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore) whose twin sister Margaret (also Moore, obviously) and brash, overweight brother Mitch (Gary Basaraba) round out the extended family unit,” writes Jessica Kiang, setting it up at the Playlist. “When the Lodges are victims of a home invasion and the overzealous application of chloroform results in Rose’s death, Margaret moves in ‘because the boy needs a mother’ with a haste that is a little unseemly. She even dyes her hair blonde to better resemble her dead sister, or as we Hitchcock fans like to call it, she self-Vertigos. This is all pretty suspicious, not just for audiences familiar with Fargo or Double Indemnity, but also for little Nicky, and for a smarmy claims investigator enliveningly, and all too briefly, played by Oscar Isaac. The body count ticks upward. Uneven though it is, the film is peppered with enough cherishable dialogue tics and dummkopf punchlines to make it a enjoyable watch.”

“Two narratives now play out,” writes Screen’s Fionnuala Halligan, “and it’s no surprise to read in the film’s production notes that they were written separately. The original Coen brothers script centered on the Lodge family, headed up by embattled patriarch Gardner (Damon), while Clooney and Heslov add an adapted-from-real-life strand, based around what actually happened when a black family moved into Levittstown, Pensylvania in 1957. They remain two separate movies bundled together by a single, tentative connection between the two young boys.”

“It’s a film about segregation and walls, spotlighting a corn-fed American darkness that lurks behind the white picket fence,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “All of which is entirely valid, given the state of the current quisling U.S. government. I just wish the actual film wasn’t so skimpy and brash and so evidently pleased with itself. There’s no danger of this one keeping the president up at night.”

Clooney’s “filmmaking career started promisingly enough with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (helped greatly by its Charlie Kaufman screenplay),” writes Alonso Duralde at TheWrap, “but since then it’s been a parade of adequacies (Good Night, and Good Luck,The Ides of March), mediocrity (Leatherheads) and downright catastrophe (The Monuments Men). Clooney’s directorial legacy won’t get any help from Suburbicon, a garish and overblown crime melodrama that . . . veers back and forth between the obvious and the ridiculous.”

“Like a pub-rock cover band, Suburbicon can be bluntly effective when playing the old hits,” writes Ben Croll for IndieWire. “Sure, it’s not the real deal, but if you get into the music, overlook a couple bum notes and let those pints do their work, you can reasonably groove along. . . . Oscar Isaac shows up wearing Jon Polito’s mustache and does that Oscar Isaac thing of being the best part of any film that he’s in.”

Updates, 9/3: “There’s a lot of entertainment value in the movie’s bits, because Clooney is not only an excellent director of actors, he’s got a great eye for shots and a good head for individual scenes,” writes Glenn Kenny at “However, Clooney’s great eye for shots often gets ahead of his editing sense.”

For the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin,Suburbicon is “a hectic, sour and muddled film—a flailing counterfeit of satire that keeps slipping on its own banana skin supply, and never remotely gets to grips with what it thinks it’s sending up. . . . To damn with some of the faintest praise going, you can see what Clooney’s trying to do here. Suburbicon’s broader themes of white rage and murderous self-interest do feel wincingly timely, and there are a handful of moments that make you want to stand up and clap—a film about the dark heart of the American suburbs that turns a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into an instrument of murder can’t be all bad. But its tone is so unflaggingly bitter, its rhythms so flat-footed, and its adult characters such reprehensible chumps, that you spend the rest of it slumped in your seat.”

Ed Gibbs, writing for Little White Lies, breaks with the general consensus: “Suburbicon, which is lensed by There Will be Blood’s Robert Elswit (and boasts an effective score from Alexandre Desplat), is Clooney’s most startling work behind the camera since Good Night, and Good Luck—and something of a return to form after the best-forgotten romp that was The Monuments Men. With a clear sense of story and purpose, the film not only serves as a shot in the arm for independent narrative cinema, but also as a rallying cry for those determined not to see the U.S. go to the dogs. Clooney is unashamedly patriotic, and this often comes through in his work, no matter how wayward the characters. Long may it continue.”

At ScreenAnarchy, Thomas Humphrey notes that “the constant presence of strict squares and symmetry in James D. Bissel’s production design of Suburbicon’s match-box houses also definitely make the town seem claustrophobic and sinisterly oppressive.” Even so: “It only has a watered-down something of the strangeness and sinisterness that Lynch’s Blue Velvet has, for example.”

“Clooney only shows flashes of comic moxy,” grants John Bleasdale at CineVue, “and everything is drowned in a now tiresome fetishizing of the 1950s aesthetic, with gizmos and supermarkets, office furniture and hairdos glossily remade. Damon puts in one of those good sport performances and there are some nice flashes of unsuspected nastiness in the pudgy middle class complacency. But Moore is sadly underused and the film only really comes alive with the arrival of Oscar Isaac.”

“This picture might have lost some of its original subtlety, but it gained George Clooney’s political imprint and general sense of hope,” finds Upcoming editor Filippo L’Astorina.

Update, 9/6:Suburbicon is “a misfire on nearly all counts,” declares Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “The movie’s themes are as obvious and slick as the fins of a Cadillac, polished to an artificially bright gleam. It’s a nearly two-hour-long advertisement for its own progressive ideals. You can believe in the ideals—but you don’t have to like the movie’s way of selling them.”

Updates, 9/7: “There’s pertinent wittiness in the way Robert Elswit’s cinematography makes all the whitest objects (from a chloroform-soaked rag to a Suspicion-looking glass of milk) pop off the screen, but such touches around the edges matter little in a movie that just isn’t there,” finds Adam Nayman, writing for Cinema Scope.

“I laughed in many of the places where Suburbicon wants us to laugh,” admits Guy Lodge, writing for Vanity Fair, “yet something feels ill-balanced from the get-go—like a carelessly mixed gin and tonic that you drink anyway, wincing at the bitter follow-through. This is suburban satire, taking comfortable aim at the aspirational values and regressive prejudices of 1950s middle America, that doesn’t land in quite the right yard.”

“Entertainments like these simply don’t get made so much anymore,” writes Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage. “A top-dollar cast on the top of their game; lush cinematography, costume and set design; a script from two of cinema’s greatest living writers; and an emotionally unshackled, sweeping score from Alexandre Desplat (a man whose significance to contemporary cinema only grows greater with each passing year). Refusing the temptation to cast himself, a first in his career as director, Clooney’s mark on things is relatively discreet. That absence suggests a more serious approach to his filmmaking style, and it shows in every frame.”

Suburbicon has an obvious ‘early Coen’ touch to it, in that it does not reach beyond the straightforward, dark-humored pleasure of watching mean, dumb people failing to carry out a film noir scheme . . . , and ending up murdering each and every one of them themselves,” writes Erwan Desbois for the International Cinephile Society. “It is undeniably fun to watch, with some great scenes paving the way of the killings. But it remains kind of pointless.”

Updates, 9/8: “The most charitable way to view it is as a Dadaist experiment, in which two tonally disparate movies were hacked down and their remaining strands woven together to bizarre effect,” suggests David Edelstein at Vulture.

“Honestly, the dominant movie here isn’t so hot in the first place,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “Where Suburbicon really stumbles is in the square peg it attempts to clumsily cram into the movie’s round hole.”

“A truly nasty piece of work, Suburbicon sees a bunch of candidly left-leaning movie stars doing their best to out-awful each other throughout,” writes Keith Uhlich at the House Next Door. “When one of the clannish Suburbicon residents hangs a Confederate flag on the Meyers's house, you want to slap Clooney upside the head for his hamfisted attempt at sociopolitical currency. And in Nicky, Clooney sees hope for a future generation that can hopefully move past the all-consuming bigotries of its ancestors. Though to this end, the film's final, meant-to-be-inspirational image only manages to attain Stanley Kramer-ish levels of naïveté and obtuseness.”

“It’s hard not to admire this film’s ambition,” offers Matt Singer at ScreenCrush. “It looks like Clooney and Heslov took a simple and accessible Coens script and deliberately made it weirder, tougher, and less commercial. The Meyers’ battles with their neighbors make Suburbicon more relevant and less effective; the Lodges’ farcical violence trivializes the Meyers’ legitimate horror, and the Meyers’ nightmares saps most of the potential laughs from the bumbling criminals, who seem a lot less funny juxtaposed with angry mobs and race riots. The whole thing is a mess, although sometimes a fascinating one. Here is a film that is practically its own little cinematic civil war.”

Mike Ryan at Uproxx: “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.’”

Updates, 10/26: “Mr. Clooney gets some things right in Suburbicon, including visually and with his two appealing child actors, who together give the movie a heartbeat,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “As the story grows grimmer and pulpier, he plays with different registers of realism, deepens the shadows and narrows his focus, using tight close-ups and all the wood paneling to box the characters in. But he skimps on the adult characters’ inner lives, and, once the narrative weight shifts to the Lodges, he never finds the tone that balances the movie’s sincerity with its nihilism. One problem is that Mr. Clooney seems to believe in happy endings, however hard-earned, while the Coens—whose presence hovers throughout—are the kind of pessimists who laugh in the dark. The tones and worldviews don’t jibe.”

Suburbicon is a disaster,” argues Sean Burns, writing for WBUR. “Clooney’s directorial career has been a bizarre 15 year reverse spiral during which he’s somehow managed to unlearn nearly everything about how to make a movie. His 2002 “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” remains one of the most visually accomplished debuts I’ve ever seen from an actor . . . Since then, Clooney’s directorial efforts have steadily sunk from adequate (Good Night, and Good Luck) to mediocre (Leatherheads,The Ides of March) to outright lousy (The Monuments Men).”

Updates, 10/27: “So repelled is Clooney by the response of white suburbia to African-Americans, and so keen is he to insure that we share his outrage at what they endured, that he quite forgets to be interested in them,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker.

“I’m far from the only critic to call out the strange, condescending bum note sounded by the film’s racial subplot,” writes Guy Lodge for the Guardian. “The general consensus that Suburbicon’s optics don’t sit right must come as something of a shock to Clooney, the admirable crown prince of liberal Hollywood . . . In person, Clooney earns that reputation: he sincerely takes all the right social and political positions, and has spoken frequently on the issue of faulty racial and gender representation in his industry. . . . Why, then, don’t his films walk the walk?”

Updates, 11/3: “Sure, it’s possible that the white riots happening in Suburbicon reflect the current tour of white nationalist pop-up events,” writes Wesley Morris in the New York Times. “And perhaps somewhere inside this movie lives a farce that reckons with white indifference in the face of national catastrophe. But no one had the audacity to find it. The movie is the catastrophe, instead.”

Writing for the Ringer, Adam Nayman suggests that “there are elements in the recognizably Coenesque portion of Suburbicon that show the most cinema-savvy filmmakers around playing with the themes and iconography of two crucial midcentury movies—classics wedged at either end of World War II, describing a crisis of American moral authority from the point of view of a generation adjusting to the terrifying possibility that the grown-ups in their midst were less than perfect role models.” As he explains, those films are Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956).

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