Venice Film Review: ‘Suburbicon’

Suburbicon Matt Damon
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Director George Clooney turns an old Coen brothers script into a lightly sneaky 1950s cousin to 'Fargo,' starring Matt Damon as an entertainingly scuzzy suburban scoundrel.

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. But “Suburbicon” marks the first time a script that could have been a full-blown 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 script (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.”

There are moments when you can taste the heightened comic spin that the Coens, as filmmakers, would have brought to the material. They would surely have made a bigger fetish of the Atomic Age trappings and decor (the way they did with the mid-’60s Midwestern Jewish visual detail of “A Serious Man”), and each time the blustery vulgarian Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) showed up on screen, I couldn’t help but imagine him played by an actor like Michael Lerner or the late Jon Polito.

Yet Clooney, in taking over what might once have been a signature Coen project, was right to make the material his own; he tailors it to own less cheeky, more personal temperament. The film opens with a satirical kitsch documentary prologue that introduces Suburbicon, a community that has drawn people from diverse regions of the country (all of whom look like they stepped out of the same white-bread Norman Rockwell painting), celebrating it as a cookie-cutter American paradise. But then the movie settles down and becomes a straight-up, rather grubby film noir — and taken on those terms, as a period-piece “Fargo” with more sleaze and less irony, it’s a lightly sneaky and entertaining movie.

From the moment he began directing, George Clooney has been a stylish, visually rhythmic, avidly engrossing yarn-spinner (the one exception, speaking of irony, is his biggest hit to date, the dud World War II art thriller “The Monuments Men”), and so it is with “Suburbicon.” It’s a movie that reels the audience in and keeps it hooked: with smart little kicks of surprise, with a sidelong but still highly charged social theme (the perilous cataclysm of integration), and, of course, with the squalid bad behavior of ordinary people who think that they can wriggle out of their unhappiness through furtive, cut-rate schemes. “Suburbicon” is probably too much of a compact, no-frills genre exercise to have much traction at awards time, but it’s enough of a plucky, well-made lark to find an audience.

The movie gets rolling with a crime that plays very oddly, and before long we learn why: Gardner Lodge (Damon), a local financial VP in button-down white shirts and tortoise-shell glasses, wakes up his son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), and brings him downstairs, saying, “There are men in the house.” The men turn out to be a couple of menacing sadistic robbers (Glenn Flesher and Alex Hassell). Instead of looking for cash, they tie up the whole family and berate them, chloroforming everyone into unconsciousness. (We keep thinking: Why doesn’t Gardner look more scared?)

It’s a rather eccentric family, because it includes Gardner’s wife, Rose, a saintly wholesome fuddy-duddy blonde in a wheelchair (she was the victim of a car accident), and Rose’s far saucier brunette identical twin sister, Margaret — both of whom are played by Julianne Moore. The incident turns into a tragedy when Rose, due to her frail nature, fails to wake up from the chloroform; instead, she lies in a coma in a hospital bed, then dies. That’s the film’s set-up — but, of course, the whole lurid event we have just witnessed is a set-up. Gardner goes back to work, stolid and shaken and crying a few crocodile tears, but when he’s called in to identify the two crooks in a police line-up, and deliberately fails to do so, we know that something is up.

In “Fargo,” which is still the Coen brothers’ greatest film, the William H. Macy character was such a bumbling, underhanded jerk of quiet desperation that we rooted for him to succeed and, at the same time, were only too happy to see the law close in on him, especially once the film invited our identification to shift over to the now-classic character of Frances McDormand’s quippy detective Marge Gunderson. In “Suburbicon,” we identify with Damon’s Gardner up to a point, but the actor has created another fascinatingly dark scuzzball scoundrel to add to his gallery of quiet sociopaths.

Gardner might be described as an untalented Mr. Ripley. He’s a morose and smoldering nerd bulldog who appears, for a while, to have thought everything out, but not really. He’s a drone who fits right into the plastic homogenized landscape of Suburbicon, but he still wants out. There’s a hidden kinkiness to the proceedings, expressed in a brief scene of late-’50s S&M (with a Ping-Pong paddle used in place of the whip that would probably be there 10 years later), that’s funny and startling but also speaks to everything that the 1950s were repressing.

In “Suburbicon,” there’s no Marge Gunderson to take over the film, but there is a kind of detective: Oscar Isaac, geekishly dapper in a tan suit and pencil mustache, as an insurance-company claims investigator who knows all the angles because his mind is working a mile a minute. In an enjoyably charged scene, he sits down in the kitchen with Moore’s Margaret — willowy, slightly spaced, now blonde (can you say dime-store “Vertigo”?), not too good a liar — and blitzes her with so much information that he susses out what’s going on in five minutes. Isaac makes his very flippancy electrifying; he knows he’s just dealing with two more losers, but he’s alive with his mission.

As Gardner’s scheme begins to come apart, the movie turns bloody, but it never loses its petty-scam logic or its driving, if rather familiar, pulp-noir urgency. Clooney keeps it all nice and tight. He also — eventually — makes the film’s racial theme pay off, though for a good while what happens to the Meyers (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke), the first Negro family to move to Suburbicon, almost seems to be taking place in a different film.

The couple have purchased the house next door to Gardner’s, and in their adjoining fenced-in backyards their son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), strikes up a tentative acquaintance with Gardner’s son Nicky. But to put it as simply as the movie does, the Meyers are tormented and terrorized: by a smug mailman, by the manager of a supermarket who basically tells Mrs. Meyers she can’t shop there, and by a vast group of “concerned citizens” who rise up against them in full, ugly, white-supremacist fervor.

Clooney, who added much of this to the script, includes period newsreel footage on television of suburban whites “rationalizing” the separateness of their neighborhoods, and what he captures, with stark (and, at moments, rather overstated) force, is that even the suburbs could act as their own version of the KKK. You might ask: What does all this have to do with the tawdry crime of passion “Suburbicon” is about? But by the end, we see just how much it has to do with it. The thing that drives Gardner to crime — the airlessness of his existence — is the very premise of white homogenized suburban life. That’s why he does all he can to escape it. And why it had to change.

Venice Film Review: 'Suburbicon'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competition), September 2, 2017. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production

A Paramount Pictures release of a Paramount Pictures, Black Bear Pictures, Dark Castle Entertainment, Smoke House Pictures production. Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney, Teddy Schwarzman. Executive producers: Ethan Erwin, Barbara A. Hall, Joel Silver, Daniel Steinman, Hal Sadoff.

Crew

Director: George Clooney. Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov. Camera (color, widescreen): Robert Elswit. Editor: Stephen Mirrione.

With

Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell, Marah Fairclough, Megan Ferguson, Noah Jupe, Michael D. Cohen, Jack Conley, Diane Dehn, Tim Neff, Gary Basaraba, Emily Goss.

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  1. Me says:

    Josh Brolin was cast in the movie as a baseball coach but his scenes ended up being removed after a test screening. George Clooney admitted that his scenes deflated the tension from the movie and felt badly to remove Brolin from the final cut as he considered the scenes one of the funniest in the entire picture.

  2. cadavra says:

    Doncha just love all these wingers boasting that they’re going to boycott a movie that they had no intention of seeing in the first place? That’s like Adam Sandler announcing he’s boycotting the Oscars.

  3. Amazing! says:

    Matt sure does love working with director Georgie even though he struggles to get a good movie out him!

  4. Michael C. Gwynne says:

    “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil; who’s standing center stage and advocating, at the top of his lungs, that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
    Sorkin –

  5. F.n. Lehner says:

    If it is “anti-White”, then it is sure to be popular within the Hollywood establishment. The real question is whether there will ever be a film permitted again that actually portrays the many beautiful moments, as well as subtle and noble people, who also existed in 1950’s America. The “50’s as nightmare” conceit of today’s film makers (and pundits) is so very tired.

    Do you really want to speak truth to power? Then take a chance and actually make a film about this period that finds a positive story, one of millions amongst the routinely caricatured mid-century White Americans, who were terrific people.

    There is an obsession today to denigrate that period through the prism of race. The result is preachy, uninformative propaganda. Please respect the intelligence of the movie going public, and the memory of the millions of fine adults who lived and died normal thoughtful lives in that era, by venturing out of the safe space of the sandbox. Grow up, and accept the fact that people are nuanced, then as now. There was much to celebrate in a dynamic America of the 1950’s. Why don’t you film makers be original for a change, and allow a beautiful sentiment to reach us from that time, without clobbering it to death with today’s mantras.

  6. Scruff says:

    “A satirical kitsch documentary prologue”. Sounds like every movie made since 1993, about the same time my generation started misusing the term “irony” when they really meant “snarky,” which this sounds like. Won’t be seeing it. No wonder Hollywood is failing.

  7. irishsavant says:

    Happy crime-free and prosperous Whitopia. But under the surface corruption, hypocrisy and depravity rule. Those terrible White people again.

    It’s a cinematic cliche by now and most of us understand the reasons behind it.

  8. Cheryl McBee says:

    We had “A RAISIN IN THE SUN” in 1961 when the subject was timely, and I’m sure it was far better done than this.
    Try keeping up Clooney. You’re grasping at straws.

  9. Keith Diggs says:

    Sorry. Sounds GREAT. BUT Clooney and Damon are on the “LIBERAL SCUMBAG” banned list. Thanks.

    • What an idiotic comment. Wtf does their political opinions have anything to do with movies? Your comment just serves to confirm that it’s Trumpers who are the REAL snowflakes.

      • Movieguy says:

        Tereik. I completely agree, and I’d add Good Night and Good Luck to the list, a pretty good movie that would have been better but for Clooney taking the opportunity to make it a liberal screed.

      • Michael C. Gwynne says:

        The answer to your question is: EVERYTHING!!! Movies have been using propaganda since the were created.
        For better AND worse. In 1930’s Germany Joseph Goebbels was in charge of all movies from casting, (He had the best casting couch in Europe) to directing and especially writing. Politics has always had its dirty hands in the creative pot to foster its views as ‘Truths.”

      • teriekwilliams says:

        The political opinions of actors most certainly have something to do with their choices and creative decisions. This is evidenced by Damon’s Green Zone & Promised Land, and George Clooney’s Money Monster.

        There’s also a huge difference between refusing to see an actor’s work so not to support them or their political views, and attempting to silence any opposing view by categorizing it as “hate speech,” claiming that “hate speech” is not protected under free speech, and using the threat of law/government, no-platforming, violence and speech codes to root out any viewpoint you dislike.

      • Steve says:

        Exactly. I don’t agree with Clint Eastwood’s politics, but I’ll always see one of his movies. I just read a review here of a film starring Vince Vaughn, another conservative, that made me want to see it. Boycotts based on political beliefs are silly.

  10. Everett Walker says:

    It should be wonderfully, disgustingly weird as befits Clooney and Damon

    • Cheryl McBee says:

      The old studio heads knew. It’s a business.
      Don’t alienate the public you’re paid to entertain. Otherwise, quit and go into politics.

  11. Jacques Strappe says:

    Another fictional film and dark comedy that critics love but angers the unwashed messes of white supremacists even though they have not or will not ever see it. Obviously NOT a film for Trump’s deplorable base of supporters. Drudge Report, Breitbart and InfoWars have all given this film a rating of ZERO flaming crosses. Those poor oppressed white folks who are now routinely passed over for cleaning lady and grass cutting jobs will just have to settle on being enraged and threatened.

  12. stevenkovacs says:

    Shocked by the anti-white content of this film. Pointless and divisive. This coming from the guy who left his compound in London after council refused his request to build an eight foot wall with CCTV around it. Why? Concerned about the migrants!
    Shame on you, George!

  13. wj2016 says:

    Don’t waste your money in seeing this junk.

  14. I’ve read the other comments here and I just wanted to come at this from a different angle – I thought this review was well-structured and intellectually stimulating. I realize the geekiness of me saying that, but it seemed to me the author deserved some credit for creating a thoughtful and engaging, tight piece that was a real pleasure to read.

    As for the impact of Coen Brothers films on people’s prejudices, it sounds as though this one, at least, is artfully-enough constructed that, upon watching it, one would have to be a real piece of Samsonite to not get that it’s intended to inspire us to review our prejudices towards a fairer society.

    • Katy says:

      the writers mom

      • Sam says:

        The question is really if it were an Asian family, Would it be a story.
        Here, this type of theme seems exploitative. An easy topic.
        Maybe what’s needed is for g c
        to read the real news about how the black culture has victimized itself and it needs to stop blaming everyone
        else. This is just another ‘victim’ endorsement.
        Please stop making race movies.
        Hate movies. Nazi hate/war hate movies.
        Why not focus on positive race role models, stories set within the the culture and how they overcame their burdens of maintaining ‘victim’ ideology.
        In art, no cliche please.

  15. While its safe to say that racial themes will be with us (because they have been…since hundreds of years before there was this thing called “the motion picture”) filmmakers–both great and small–will stumble over the subject, ad museum. (Black folks moving to a lily-white enclave….) The theme, however “boring”, remains relevant for those (not only whites) holding grudges.

    George Clooney is a card-carrying liberal, proudly left-leaning and his films will somehow showcase his personal politics. This is what “Suburb-icon” (Get it?) is really all about…because those who missed History class on the day they taught Current Events are the least informed.

    As for the date of the Coen Brothers script, how they might have handled the material and, of course, the graphic blood and violence–speculation is not a movie. Whether or not the film does well at the box office, Walmart’s retail DVD bin, or Netflix streaming is the “business” side of Show Business. Should it do well, the investors will be pleased and Clooney will be rewarded with this kind of Variety review. Most of all the racism that had faced, and continues to face African Americans, will be delineated once again; probably because it hasn’t gone anywhere.

    But as far as “entertainment” goes, if you don’t like Clooney you will not like this film–unseen. Is it any good? Who gives a shit, because what’s important is…Clooney sucks. Right? Sounds like that “grudge” thing, does it?

    • Revvy says:

      “Ad museum?” That’s a new one . . .

      • Cheryl McBee says:

        I’m so sorry to disappoint, but African Americans do not “continue to face” the same racism as faced 50 years ago. In case it’s escaped your notice; significant progress has been made through the efforts of blacks (and whites) in this country, and that would be nice to acknowledge that once in a while.

    • Cheryl McBee says:

      But if Blacks were equal, then who would they manipulate? Pandering, condescending and instigating are what they do to stay relevant.
      Like I said. If you want this with dignity; rent “A Raisin in the Sun” – 1959

    • Toni says:

      Clooney and others selling to the public …. politics,race,religion….. it’s always an argument. Personal opinions, keep it to yourself. The saying goes.
      Call the cops.

  16. IT--II--IT says:

    Hollywood–INTEL has had its cover blown

    TIME to blow this franchise slum – –for GOOD

  17. harry georgatos says:

    A couple weeks of okay box office but will disappear quickly afterwards. If it wasn’t for the casting of Matt Damon this movie would find itself quickly in the DVD discount bin at WMART. SURBIBCON is a cliche Coen brothers movie with the Coen brothers not directing. Would have found an audience in the ’90’s and early 2000’s. Will be quickly forgotten!

  18. Jackson says:

    Cloney is a terrible director…Unfortunate.

  19. Sandy says:

    Wow hopefully geo c and Matt d will make some great comedies. Like oceans 11 lite.
    Ok. Next movie Join the comic relief campaign for lite hearted funny endearing stories.

  20. Frank says:

    If you travel to any place outside of ny or ca you can’t even tell people where you’re from (ny or ca) or if you are from the areas outside of ny /ca you can’t tell people in ny/ca you are from any place else. If asked. So if anyone asked where you’re from you know it’s a setup for prejudice and say Canada.

  21. Sam says:

    Oh great misery and hate combined in a movie. That’s a new idea.

  22. Katy says:

    Fargo ended up being one of the most destructive movies. It prejudiced an entire country against the good people of the real place (the film is about) with ridicule
    and resulted in the hate of being ostracized.

    • Toni says:

      The coen broths grew up in minn.
      so it was their ridicule movie with the now famous hic accent.
      Just plain hateful. Ohhhh but they made it to the big time Hollywood which gives them a right to hate and ridicule minn.
      great. So great.

    • Steve says:

      Um, I disagree. Very strongly. For one thing, the film was set mostly in Brainerd, MN. (The only scene set in Fargo is the very first.) More importantly, Marge (the pregnant cop) is clearly portrayed as the hero of the film — good-hearted, decent, smart, etc. The people of the area are portrayed in a teasing but positive light: again, they are portrayed as good, decent people. Most people understood that the portrayal of Brainerd in the film is affectionate.

      • Steve says:

        @Katy: I live in California. I’ve visited Minnesota and found it to be lovely. I don’t consider any state to be a “flyover state”. You apparently have an inclination to distrust people on the coasts and think we’re judging/laughing at you. I’m sure that some are, but I choose not to associate with those people. And yes, I am quite liberal. Please question your assumptions.

      • Katy says:

        That may be how you viewed the movie however it is commonplace to hear the comments ridiculing the accent and lifestyle like a bunch
        of hics when referencing Fargo or for that matter after Fargo the entire state of …..Minnie sote tah….. same for what do they call it in ca …..the flyover states…. dismissal of the country outside of ca and ny.
        Yah. really.

  23. Toni says:

    Oh boy more misery. Fargo could have been such a great movie but they got stuck with the misery easy way out of the challenge.
    Throw in some misery and win awards.
    Isn’t Venice and Cannes just a bunch of lewd misery tales. The easy film making.
    It’s supposed ‘ drama’; just low challenge easy attention getting perverse misery tales. No thanks. Oscar winners. No thanks.

  24. mcgwynne says:

    Looks like this movie is only about 70 years too late!
    Re-energizing the spectre of racial discord these days is just throwing fuel on the fire.
    Dwelling on toxic yesterdays is what keeps a lotta bars filled with sullen drunks nursing grudges.
    Maybe that’s why the Coen brothers let this one sit on the sidelines.
    Waiting for a crass Liberal like Clooney to attempt a modern day scold passing as a farcical social commentary.

  25. John Miller says:

    Whew! Thank heavens there’s enough racial stuff in here to keep Hollywood calmed down.

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