The bumpy filmography of George Clooney as a director hit an all-time low three years ago with Monuments Men, impossible to rescue by all accounts. There is indeed no better way to recover from that than asking your friends the Coen brothers (if you are lucky enough to have them among your circle of friends) whether you can borrow an unused script they wrote thirty years ago for your next movie . Joel and Ethan Coen said yes, as did the other renowned artists brought together by Clooney – Robert Elswit as cinematographer, Alexandre Desplat as composer, Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac (in a small role) as the cast – to ensure a minimum standard of quality, like how things were done in Hollywood around the time Suburbicon is set. In the fifties and the sixties, any studio movie made with enough talented people behind and in front of the camera was guaranteed to be at least decent, and Suburbicon is just that: decent.
What is somehow saddening is to see that Clooney seems satisfied with that level of achievement, even as the Coen brothers have come such a long way since the time they were writing stories like this one. Suburbicon has an obvious “early Coen” touch to it, in that it does not reach beyond the straightforward, dark-humored pleasure of watching mean, dumb people failing to carry out a film noir scheme (to have a family member killed and collect the life insurance), and ending up murdering each and every one of them themselves. It is undeniably fun to watch, with some great scenes paving the way of the killings. But it remains kind of pointless, even with the subplot added by Clooney and Grant Heslov to make this story, written in 1986 and set in 1959, resonate with contemporary issues. The neighbours of the Lodges, the story’s main characters, are the Meyers, the first black family to ever settle in the all-white (and proud to be so) fictional suburbs of Suburbicon. The movie opens with the brutally heinous reaction of the whole city to this arrival: a hysterical town meeting during which the only way for the mayor to avoid a riot is to accept the idea of a fence surrounding the Meyers’ house and isolating them from the rest of the world.
Nevertheless the riot eventually occurs, after a long build-up of violent harassing and humiliation undergone by the Meyers. Clooney is obviously well-meaning when he writes and films this, exposing the harsh reality that nobody bothers the murderous Lodges because everybody is too busy bullying the guiltless Meyers on the basis of their skin color. But he is also quite clumsy in the way he does it, making the opposite mistake: his main bother is what happens at the Lodges’ home. The Meyers remain in the background of the movie, having no first names, no information regarding their lives (what they do for a living, whether their kid is allowed to go to school), no insight into how they endure their discriminatory ordeal. We are never with them and always stuck with their infamous neighbours – as if the tragic story of the Meyers mattered less than the Lodges’ display of stupidity. Which brings Suburbicon to the verge of unintentionally turning its back on its own beliefs.