Back in 2014 when the George Clooney-helmed The Monuments Men limped into theaters, I said in my review that I imagined would just be written off as a good idea poorly executed. Clooney had earlier directed the excellent (and Oscar-nominated) films Good Night, and Good Luck in 2005 and The Ides of March in 2011.
Despite an all-star cast and a fascinating story, though, The Monuments Menfizzled out somewhere along the path to the theater, and whether you blamed the script (which Clooney co-wrote with his production partner Grant Heslov) or you blamed the uninspired work of said cast (which, yes, included Clooney), the end result was a meandering, almost incoherent mess.
Which brings us to Clooney’s latest directorial effort, Suburbicon.
Born in the mid-80s at the pen of Joel and Ethan Coen and later tweaked by Clooney and Heslov, it got the green light from Paramount almost a decade ago. Now it’s finally hitting the screen, and it turns out The Monuments Men may not have been a fluke. Suburbicon does the impossible; it makes a tedious film about soldiers recovering art from the Nazis look inspired.
It’s a bit of head-scratcher, really, because all the pieces are in place for Suburbicon. The Coen Brothers rarely stumble (even 2004’s The Ladykillers had its high points), Clooney hits far more than he misses, and the cast includes Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, and a solid supporting team.
It seems, simply, to be yet another case of trying to do so many things that none of them are done well. The meat of Suburbicon is quirky crime caper involving Damon as Gardner Lodge, a family man in a 1959-set neighborhood straight out of Pleasantville or Edward Scissorhands. One night thugs break into his home and chloroform everyone, including his wife Rose (Moore), her sister Margaret (also Moore), and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose is killed in the fracas, and the thugs escape. There’s much more to the story (in typical Coen fashion), but I’ll stop there.
If only the Coens had, too.
At the same time as those goings-on, a far more serious subplot plays out as a black family moves in one street over, much to the consternation of the violently racist residents of the lily-white neighborhood. While similar events played out in real-life Levittown, they seem woefully out of place in the same breath as the misadventures of a bunch of bumbling criminals. Picture the result if Selma and Raising Arizona had been inadvertently spliced together in the editing room, and you’d be in the ballpark.
Both plot lines of Suburbicon had plenty of potential, to be sure, but neither are done well at all. Damon and Moore don’t seem to have even remotely the same buy-in as Issac, who steals the show in his limited role. And the racism elements are always kept at more than an arm’s length, so much so that we never even learn the names of the characters; the targeted parents are referred to only as Mr. and Mrs. Mayers.
No, sadly, there’s not much at all that works in Suburbicon, but it could have been at least somewhat watchable had the Coen brothers and Clooney not tried to mash the disparate plots together in some sort of unholy mess. Worse than The Monuments Men, it’s not only poorly executed, it was a lousy idea in the first place.