Short version: Everything that I enjoyed while watching Suburbicon was the Coen Bros, and everything that I found infuriating was Clooney and Heslov’s clumsy attempt at commentary on racial tension.
Clooney gets mixed reviews as a director, but for me, he has always been one to stop down for. Good Night and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind are personal favs of mine. Clooney is talented, charismatic, and might be one of few nice guys left in Hollywood but his vision on Suburicon is a muddled mess. Working off a two-decade-old Coen Brothers script with producing partner Grant Heslov, one has to think that perhaps Joel & Ethan knew better to leave well enough alone.
Suburbicon stars Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac. Opening with a “Leave it to Beaver” idyllically styled version of Suburbia. Suburbicon centers on Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge and Julianne Moore pulling double duty as his disabled wife and her twin sister. The film looks picture perfect and Capra-esque until *dut-da-dum* a Black family moves in the neighborhood. And just like that, the worst parts of All In The Family racism explode to the surface in the community. The Black family moving in is a loss-leader that Clooney & Heslov employ to distract from the real evil surrounding Damon and his family dynamic. The ever trusty insurance agent Bud Cooper (Oscar Issac), discovers Lodge (Damon) was tired of his current wife and wanted an identical trade-in so he employed some local thugs to do her in. Of course, it all goes wrong and hilarity ensues. As the Coen Bros greatest film Fargo centers on a similar plot, you can see why the script was left on the shelf.
The idea of a self-inflicted wagging of the dog, it’s an interesting all be it simplistic premise. While all the inhabitants in the Suburbicon subdivision are so preoccupied with the perceived indignity of integration, they are missing out on the reality of real evil being perpetrated literally right next door. Some folks would like to give cookies to Clooney for trying to comment on our current political dynamic by using images from the past. But for me as much as I respect him and those that worked on the film– I am not here to hand out cookies.
I am here with several questions. In fact, that was my first thought when I left the film. I was not ten feet out of my screening at TIFF when I was asked the enviable question, ‘So whatcha think of it?” and from that moment to this, my answer remains the same. ‘I have questions’
In fact, I have several questions for Mr. Clooney:
Why would you choose to marry the true-life story about heavy racial divisiveness with a mad-cap murder gone wrong Coen brothers story? It’s a toxic relationship that even a brilliant but wasted performance by Oscar Issac cannot save.
Why treat the Black protagonists of the secondary story as a simple character set dressing? The Black father in the film has NO DIALOGUE. I’m not kidding you. He literally doesn’t speak a word. And Karimah Westbrook playing Mrs. Meyers performance was reduced to little more than a series of sighs against racists persecuting her. It’s so emotionally contrived you can practically hear a negro spiritual being hummed underneath each scene of her quiet perseverance. To be clear, Mrs. Meyer does get to speak in the film, but just barely.
Is the sole only purpose of the Black son to show, Matt Damon’s child in a favorable light? It’s the one sane white person in the face a racism trope over again. Kevin Costner in Hidden Figures, Brad Pitt in 12 Years A Slave, all the way back to Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird this trick is so tired I don’t have the energy to break down why it needs to end.
Finally, if you felt that the Meyers story from Levittown, Pennsylvania was so interesting, why not just tell that story? Or better yet produce it and let an upcoming Black female director, direct it? Not just Ava.
Lord give me strength because I have to say again. Ava (or Spike Lee or Ryan Coogler) can’t direct everything! Furthermore, white Hollywood directors don’t get to yet again put the work on our backs cause they’re scared. As our supreme queen, Ava has said: “She is the exception, not the rule.” Let’s make more exceptions, so they become the rule. And you Mr. Clooney can and should do that instead of this. I get it. It’s hard for non-Black directors to tell Black stories. The difficulty is high, as is the chance for failure, but you can’t punt like Sofia Coppola and you can’t give a half effort like Suburbicon.
The path to hell is paved with the best intentions, and for me the first stop is Suburbicon. I appreciate what Clooney and company were trying to do– but by combining these stories, they failed both.
Suburbicon is currently playing in theaters.
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Jacqueline is the Director of Festivals and Conventions for @BlackGirlNerds and a film correspondent for @RottenTomatoes. She is also a Gamer, Cinephile, Theater-kid, internet addict, and lover of all things geek. Follow her on Twitter @ThatJacqueline