Joyce Glasser reviews Suburbicon (November 24, 2017), Cert 15, 104 min.
With a script by Joel and Ethan Coen (whose film Fargo this, in part, resembles); additions by directors George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac playing three duplicitous sleazeballs, Suburbicon is the perfect antidote to Christmas good cheer and charity. As a film, it goes off the rails too early in its riotous course and as a satire of suburbia, there’s not much that is new. Not much, but enough to make this an enjoyable romp and a social satire with that unmistakeable Clooney touch.
Travel back in your minds to a 1950’s new town designed for happy Norman Rockwell families with no crime and plenty of green lawns for barbeques. Women are house wives, men go off to work and return for dinner, and kids play without fear of being shot or stabbed. Welcome to the post WWII American Dream. Welcome to Suburbicon. Well, that’s the idea; the reality of course, is somewhat different.
A white postman delivers a letter to number 1325 and an attractive African-American woman answers the door. ‘Is Mrs Myers home?’ he asks politely. The woman replies, ‘I’m Mrs Meyers,’ and takes the letter. The Meyers (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke) are clearly the first and only black couple to move into Suburbicon, described on the billboard as, ‘the place where problems disappear.’
Soon the neighbourhood is in the know and worried: ‘we favour integration, but only when the Negro is ready for it. They don’t seek to better themselves.’
Rose Gardner and her sister Margaret (both played by Julianne Moore) are peeling vegetables on Rose’s back porch with a view of the rear garden of number 1325. Rose, a sickly, staid blond is in a wheel chair – the result of a car accident. Her sister, a glamorous brunette, sits by her side. Rose tells her son Nicky (Noah Jupe) to go play baseball with the new neighbour, a friendly boy his age. Nicky reluctantly goes over to meet and play ball with Andy Meyers (Tony Espinosa) – and, in a convoluted way, this act saves his life.
That night, middle-aged, pudgy Gardner Lodge (Damon), a bespeckled suit who works as a financial VP, enters Nicky’s room and tells him, ‘there are men in the house; you have to wake up.’ Nicky finds himself in the middle of a home invasion in which two robbers (Glenn Flesher and Alex Hassell) use chloroform to render everyone unconscious. Something is askew, however. The robbers are not looking for jewellery or money and Gardner does not look particularly scared. Rose, however, does not pull through.
What follows is a absurdly choreographed farce of increasingly evil intentions, growing suspicions – which are too easily aroused – and impossible coincidences. There is even some heroism in the form of Nicky’s Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba), a generous, good-natured bachelor who cares about Nicky. Gardner considers Mitch to be a bad influence on his son and limits their contact.
But it is for Mitch to comfort Nicky on the loss of his mother. Margaret and Gardner are too preoccupied moving Margaret into the family home.
Even when Aunt Margaret bleaches her hair blond Nicky is behind the audience in suspecting that this is not your normal all-American family. After the police line-up, Nicky’s confusion changes to frustration and fear.
If the police do not catch on, Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis), a suave, debonair life insurance man with a dark moustache and a confident air, has no trouble smelling something rotten in the state of Suburbicon. A confrontational scene between Margaret and Brad grows increasingly tense. It’s just too bad the writing (would Margaret really say ‘we’ in this context?) in this scene does not match the electrifying chemistry between Moore and Isaac.
While Nicky comes to terms with the changes in his family and the robbers seek revenge on Gardner for what they believe is betrayal, an angry mob is forming outside the Meyers’ home.
Why suburbia? The Coen Brothers have set several of their films in suburban locations, including the wonderful dark comedy of 2009, A Serious Man. This is apparently an old script resurrected and doctored for and by Clooney and Heslov who apparently saw new potential in the setting. Is it far-fetched to imagine America today as Suburbicon: a smug, close-minded, greedy and paranoid community that believes the barbarians are at the gates, when they are festering within?
And while the Meyers’ story might seem like a subplot from another film, it is not only integral to the filmmakers’ vision, but provides the chill and the emotion that the main story – with holes that no one bothers to fill in – fails to. For as well as being an allegory of Trump’s America, Suburbicon can be seen as a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play, A Raison in the Sun, first performed in 1959, the year in which Suburbicon is set. In that play an inner city black family try to better themselves by moving to a Chicago suburb after receiving a small inheritance. The Meyers’ arrival and the postman’s words are an ironic link to that play, and to a buried chapter in the American dream of of the post-war era.
You can watch the film trailer here: