Suburbicon is a bit of a mess. George Clooney has taken a middling Coens’ script, stripped it of social relevance in the 21st Century, and caked it in a momentum-less, inconsequential race-riot narrative that’s as confusing as it is unsatisfying. You can see what he was going for here: Fargo, by way of Blue Velvet and Fences; but the final product ends up feeling like The Book of Henry in its baffling persistence on tonal nerve-jangling. That’s not to say that it’s boring, or unfunny, but rather that it just doesn’t work as a whole.
After a wry, wink-wink opening involving a heavily ironic advert for the town of Suburbicon (advertising diversity amid a sea of white faces), we learn that things are not so content after all when the Mayers, a black family, move into the predominantly white neighbourhood. Pretty soon, the normally amiable residents of Suburbicon are hounding the local council to take action, and viciously protesting outside the house. Meanwhile, next door, a sinister web of deceit, murder, and mob money forms between Matt Damon’s Gardener Lodge, and a couple of mysterious men who seem hellbent on making his life miserable.
Here’s where it begins to get confusing. As it turns out, the Coens’ original script solely followed the Damon crime story (which makes sense, it feels very reminiscent of Fargo and Burn After Reading), and the race riots narrative has been added in by Clooney. This storyline itself has no arc or momentum: black family moves into white neighbourhood, gets harassed in increasingly violent ways, and there’s a riot where a couple of protesters set a car on fire and smash a window. That’s the whole story.
Now, the thing is, because Clooney switches back and forth between the households of the Lodges and the Mayers, we assume there must be some sort of connection. So, throughout the picture, the audience is kept intrigued and invested in the story (how will these two narratives intersect?); but, the problem is, they never do. The stories never collide, making the two plotlines effectively two different feature films altogether. Given that we’ve already covered that the race-riot story has no momentum or raison d’être, there is literally no reason for it to be in the film. The hysterical racism seems to mount in tandem with the darkening crime saga, and it’s possible to suggest that Clooney was going along the lines of ‘hey, look at all these racists hounding black people when the white people next door were the main problem’, but this just isn’t enough to justify 30 minutes (at least) of footage, and the introduction of 3 main characters, for what is, essentially, a red herring.
So the racial allegory doesn’t work, and neither does the social commentary. Lynch’s Blue Velvet may be a masterpiece of subversion and hysteria, but it’s most definitely a product of its time. We know, definitively, that behind the amiable glow of 1950s suburbia lay a festering pit of discontent, crime, and racism, and we’ve been told this again and again. We know that, even today, suburban America is far from the paradise it parades itself as. And, furthermore, we know that widespread racism still runs in an undercurrent through the US with alarming rage. It is because of this that Suburbicon doesn’t qualify as a satire: there’s no parody, no subversive commentary, and no revelation in the things it preaches to its audience; and, in many ways, its preaching to the converted. 1950s America wasn’t great? Who’d have known?
All of which leaves us with that central murder mystery. It’s clear that this is an early Coens’ script: the ‘twists’ are painfully predictable, the game is given away within the first 15-20 minutes, and the plot beats are devices that have been done to death by this point; but it actually turns out to be pretty entertaining. The jokes, both physical and verbal, have a good hit ratio, and the audience is reliably laughing even as they struggle to comprehend just what the hell is going on. Similarly, the visual makeup of the film is fantastic: Clooney and co have really gone to town on the fetishized ‘50s palette and almost cartoonish glow to the suburb. At times, it feels as if we’re inside a promotional booklet or poster for Suburbicon itself. Damon does a great job of commanding what turns out to be a pretty complex character, and a host of excellent supports (including Oscar Isaac for a fleeting few moments of brilliance) grace the screen to provide alternately hilarious, disturbing, and engaging interludes to break up the action.
And therein lies the dilemma. Suburbicon fails to work, but, at its heart, there’s a bleakly entertaining Coen Brothers script that delivers the goods time and time again. If you like your comedies served up dark, bleak, and somewhat distressing, then you could do a lot worse. It’s a pretty stylish, occasionally brilliant farce that tumbles down a predictable rabbit hole into a destructive portrait of middle-class America. But it’s a film that fails to work on almost every narrative level: constructing characters we care about, making a coherent storyline, and having some sort of point are all alien concepts to Clooney. It is, for all intents and purposes, a pretty awful movie – but it’s a car crash that’s damn entertaining to watch.