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‘Suburbicon’ is This Year’s Toothless Indictment of the Suburbs

The problem with 'Suburbicon' is that it desperately wants to be something it's not: good.

Matt Damon in Suburbicon.

On paper, Suburbicon looks like an obvious candidate for one of the best movies of the year. It’s based on an old, unfinished script by the Coen Brothers, who make good movies, that was updated by Oscar nominee Grant Heslov, who makes good movies, and directed by new dad George Clooney, who makes good movies when he’s not playing Batman. The cast is absolutely stacked, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore starting and Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, and Megan Ferguson coming off the bench. Yet, against all odds, Suburbicon is an incredibly underwhelming, convoluted movie. Why? Because it wants so desperately to indict the suburbs on charges of moral hypocrisy that it forgets that zoning doesn’t really have a moral vector, only people do.

Watching Suburbicon feels like watching two completely different movies, neither of which follows through on its promise. The main plot follows Gardner Lodge (Damon) and his seemingly perfect nuclear family living in the seemingly perfect suburb aptly named Suburbicon in the seemingly perfect 1950s. Tragedy strikes when criminals break into the Lodge lodge and dislodge Gardner’s disabled wife Rose (Moore) from existence, leaving Gardner and his son Nicky (Jupe, who rocks) to fend for themselves with a little bit of help from Rose’s twin sister Nancy (Moore).

While it is not known which parts of the script were written by the Coens and which were adjusted by Clooney and Heslov, this plot seems straight out of the Coen playbook. It’s chaotic and meanspirited and features a talmudic incestuousness. Nothing is as it seems except the characters, who pretty much are. At first, Gardner is presented as what modern dickheads might call a “cuck,” serving drinks to the two men who will kill his wife. He’s powerless and that powerlessness makes him kind of unlikeable. Of course, this is the Coenverse so it’s not that simple.

If Suburbicon is supposed to be a commentary on the sinister secrecy preserved by white picket fences, it fails precisely because it’s predictable. That guy next door he acts meek but kind looks like Jason Bourne? Guess what, he can throw a punch. The Lodge family may have a dark side, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not boring. By assuming that the suburbs are somehow sinister, Clooney seems to forget that the more apt criticism of commuter paradises is that they’re dull.

So what does Clooney think would go great with a middling Coen script that feels like a clunky early draft of A Serious Man? A very obvious and equally shallow glimpse at the difficulty of racial integration in the American suburbs. We meet the Mayerses, a kind, hard-working black family living next door to the Lodges. The Mayerses get verbally and physically harassed by almost all of their racist neighbors. The message here, and it’s more headline than subtext, is that the irrational fear of dischord often leads to violence. That is true, but that doesn’t make it profound.

Ironically, the Mayerses prove to be a perfect Suburbicon family in that, despite their upward mobility, they can only afford one dimension. They are nice people try to do improve their lot. Why did they move to Suburbicon in the first place? Unclear. Why do they refuse to leave despite so much abuse and discrimination? Unclear. What do they wish upon their neighbors and tormenters? Unclear. Their story is deeply unsatisfying and suspiciously shallow. It feels like a box got checked. There is no surprise and, almost more worryingly, no real effort made to make the Mayerses’s story relevant to a modern audience.

Separately, these would make for two easily forgettable movies but together, they create Suburbicon, a perfect storm of bland that will be in theaters at the same time as Blade Runner 2029 and Thor: Ragnarok. If this movie had a lot to offer and really felt like a noble continuation of the rich tradition of shitting on the suburbs, that would be one thing. But it isn’t and watching androids fight humans and giant green monsters is a whole lot more interesting than watching a filmmaker wrestle with something big and lose.