I wonder what the Coen brothers really thought of George Clooney (and Grant Heslov) rewriting their long-on-the-shelf screenplay. Clooney’s record with such tampering isn’t exactly spotless (Charlie Kaufman was most unimpressed with the changes he made to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), and his decision to mash up their ’50s-set crime story with their own segregation drama, as a reaction to Trump (sigh), is only deleterious to the whole. Apparently, the Coens gave him their blessing, but they were probably just being polite.
Because everything about the Mayers plot, in which a black family moves to the whites-only Suburbicon community and ensuing tensions that erupt – based on Clooney and Heslov studying the Levittown, Pennsylvania case – feels awkwardly grafted onto the main meat. The family are nothing more than cyphers, with no story or characters of their own beyond the functionality of representing the issue under discussion. Clooney makes his point about the scapegoating of minorities, but when it’s this cack-handed, he’d have been better off just holding a press conference (he’d certainly have reached a larger audience).
As a consequence, the subplot may – if I’m being generous – be well-intentioned, but it’s also wholly trite. Which is a shame, as the Coens side of the movie is entirely engrossing, twisted and full of dark wit (it also cannot have gone unnoticed by Clooney that overtly political statements are pretty much anathema to the brothers). It has common DNA with their other botched murder tales Blood Simple (which Suburbicon was written subsequently to) and Fargo. Particularly Fargo, with Matt Damon’s idiot husband thinking he can get away with murdering his wife bearing more than a passing resemblance to William H Macy thinking likewise.
This plotline doesn’t just concern a bumbler, though; Gardner Lodge (Damon) and his sister-in-law Margaret (Julianne Moore) are full-blooded sociopaths. They’re mutually dependent, but if one or the other’s survival hinged on the other’s not, they’d surely persuade themselves it was for the best.
Certainly, that’s the crux of the opening scene, in which robbers break into the family home and chloroform them, including son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and his wheelchair-bound mother Rose (also Moore), who dies from the overdose. It looks iffy from the off, and a few scenes later, it’s confirmed that Gardner and Margaret concocted the scheme together. Unfortunately for Gardner, he hasn’t paid the robbers (Glenn Fleshler and Ale Hassell). He’s then careless enough to let Nicky see the police line-up, during which he and Margaret deny they’ve ever seen the perps before. Then there’s the police chief (Jack Conley), who knows something ain’t right.
The coup here is that much of the unfolding is from Nicky’s perspective, and Clooney has fortunately picked a fine performer in Jupe, who can more than carry the material. He comes to realise there are murderers in his midst and can’t ignore the fact, to the point where Margaret is intent on poisoning him. It’s nightmarish stuff, and because of that perspective, even with Damon being a doofus, Suburbicon lacks the lightness and charm of Fargo.
It takes the entrance of Oscar Isaac as a cocky insurance investigator, intent on getting his cut or sending Gardner and Margaret down, to add a dash of the flippantly anarchic. It’s a breath of fresh air to see Isaac playing something he can dig into, since he’s been served a spate of vanilla leads of late that tend to make you forget what all the fuss was about.
His is a pure Coens role, and the best thing about this movie is recognising the rhythms of their dialogue when they’re uninterrupted. “I love my sister and I love my son” protests Margaret. “You love her husband too” shoots back Isaac, not missing a beat. The police chief thinks Lodge’s name sounds Jewish, to which he frustratedly responds “I’m an Episcopalian” (I’m sure they simply thought the way the word rolls around the tongue was sufficiently funny in itself to include).
And to be fair to Clooney – not that there’s any upside to his script meddling – he rises to the challenge of directing the material in a manner not seen since his debut. Probably because it’s the most energetic screenplay he’s worked with since then. Isaac’s demise, having run from the Lodge house with a belly full of lye, comes in a deserted street – everyone is off rioting – via a poker, and it’s queasily off-kilter.
Then there’s the climax, with Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) coming to Nicky’s rescue, and the action taking place entirely from Nicky’s perspective under the bed. The subsequent father-son talk is also duly disturbing, and I’d much rather see Damon essaying this kind of part than his saccharine overdose of everyman charm in The Martian.
Clooney and Heslov should probably swear off the writing gig, if their work here is anything to go by. I’m they’ll keep getting projects off the ground – this one was a resounding flop – on the basis that their last The Monuments Men, did pretty well, despite being as dramatically inert as his earlier Leatherheads. George has made a pretty decent Coens brothers movie in Suburbia. Unfortunately, he also made a wrteched Heslov/Clooney one.