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TIFF FILM REVIEW: The Neighbors Have Gone Mad In Uneven Clooney Flick SUBURBICON

TIFF FILM REVIEW: The Neighbors Have Gone Mad In Uneven Clooney Flick SUBURBICON

Best pals George Clooney, Matt Damon, the Coen Brothers, and their long-time producer Grant Heslov teamed up recently to give us Suburbicon. Through the film, the clever band surely seems to think it is pushing back at the “elitist bubble” theory of America by showcasing that, au contraire, it is the suburbs that are a scary, dangerous place. But while Suburbicon shows the flashes of brilliance that you expect sometimes just slip off of the minds of the Academy-Award winning screenwriters, the joke is mostly on them, as the pulpy, overstated film ends up exposing only the depravity of their own minds and not much more.

Gardner Lodge is a middle-aged man living in 1950s suburbia, in the aptly but not subtly-named Suburbicon. Nothing is restrained in a project involving the Coen’s, and neither is Matt Damon’s performance as the shrewd, conniving patriarch that has a plan to rise above the class shackles that bind him. His wheel-chair bound wife and her identical sister live with him, but not for long, as an early-in-the-film home break-in results in the family number being cut down to size. Both women are played by Julianne Moore, who is essentially reprising a more psychotic, slightly angrier role of women she has played before, most notably in Far From Heaven and The Hours. The Lodges also have a young son, Nicky, through which large parts of the plot are advanced.

Trouble begins brewing in paradise when a black family moves in to the seemingly peaceful environs, raising with them the curtain over the idyllic lodgings to reveal a darker, more sinister “underbelly.” The supposed quirk here, again in the Coen Brothers’ absolute lack of restraint, is that the dirty truth will be exposed not just at the neighborhood level—though they become increasingly vile and nasty with racism as the film goes on—but at the individual level, at the family level through the Lodges.

Look, you and I both know that movies about suburban anxiety are nothing new. Tom Hanks famously uncovered his murderous neighbors way back in the now-cultish The ‘Burbs, and even earlier this year Jordan Peel treated us to his own version of racist, disturbing Americana with Get Out. So Suburbicon really needs to do something more to justify its existence, and the obvious trope, of the racial animus building against the innocent black neighbors parallel to the water reaching a boiling point in the Lodges’ household does not quite work.

For one, there is simply nothing insightful about playing clips of otherwise nice-looking white old ladies describing how she just doesn’t want “those people” in her hood. Undoubtedly, these stories remain powerful and sadly relevant today, but the Coen’s detour—and Clooney’s dutiful pursuit thereof—into fatuous violence distracts from whatever other message they thought they were conveying.

For another, the Coens exhibit yet again they are grandiosely enamored with their own product, unable to resist splotching the screenplay with “reciprocal extradition,” “plebes,” and “nestlings,” only to show us who is boss. It is actually amusing in those isolated contexts—let’s not become language pirates that easily—but the mechanism betrays its own problems when the moment of the main character’s valediction comes and he declares, as the world burns by his own hand, “these people are animals.” The Coens know exactly what they are doing, but that does not make the approach any more justifiable. You know there is a problem when they resolve the intricate plot they have constructed by what they may think is a playbook out of a Tarantino book. But Quentin uses all-out violence to glorify gore. The Coens use it as an escape valve.

As you would expect, there are the hilarious, parody-like moments that characterize the films that the Coen Brothers have become famous for over the years. One of Moore’s housewives is as likely to use her rolling pin to crush sleeping pills for dastardly deeds, as she is to iron out the folds of her apron with her flour-soaked hands. A tricycle serving as an escape vehicle for a determined grown man is the kind of screwball comedy that fans of the Coens delight in. And a third-act appearance by Oscar Isaac as a slimy but perhaps fateful insurance adjuster injects the film with a by-then much-needed sense of order and interest, one which had been lost in the previous ninety minutes of predictable plotting.

Wisteria Lane, Suburbicon, or Stepford. We know what Hollywood thinks of the eccentric, too-tightly-wound phenomenon that is the American city-side. But is it always really the neighbors that have gone wild? Is it really the Joneses that are violent? Or is it just the high-strung screenwriters?

Grade: B-

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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