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What the hell happened to the George Clooney who made Confessions of a Dangerous Mind? Sure, the actor’s still around, and he’s pretty good, but as a director? Jeez. That guy made a movie about the Red Scare or something in 2005 and then just straight disappeared (maybe the CIA took him to whatever black site they’re holding Chuck Barris and Sam Rockwell’s career at), and the Clooney we’ve been left with sense then fumbled the ball with Leatherheads and has been stinking up the multiplex ever since. His latest, the Coen Brothers-scripted Suburbicon was something I was looking forward to ever since I saw the trailer before I came to TIFF, and I’m sorry to say that it’s more of the same. It has no idea what kind of film it wants to be, and, frankly, it’s absolutely dreadful until Oscar Isaac pops up near the end. Why make this movie if you’re going to make it this poorly?
What starts out as a bungled drama about integration of a black family into a “peaceful” planned community known as Suburbicon, full of homes filled with residents from all over the US, soon gives way to a modestly ambitious crime thriller about the Lodge family, whose patriarch (Matt Damon) is up to no good. His son (Noah Jupe) begins to suspect the worst, and slowly and surely, shit starts to get real, involving mobsters, insurance adjusters and out-of-control fire trucks. The segregation stuff I mentioned at the start is just window-dressing, really, and Paramount has gone out of their way to obscure that fact from you, because it’s not necessarily a big deal in terms of this film (there’s a nugget of a decent idea there, but one that probably needed the full attention and engagement of the talented filmmakers who let this thing rot in a desk drawer for the last 20 or 30 years). It’s much more concerned with bad white people than anything else.
Damon’s fine, I guess, but he’s so thinly written and his motivations are so concealed by the plot’s own satisfaction with itself that you never get a sense of who the fuck he is until the final minutes of the film. Julianne Moore’s got some funny moments at first, in which she gets to play Lodge’s wife and her twin sister inside of the same frame, but her shtick eventually reverts to that ’50s housewife bullshit that people seem to outsource to her. The rest of the cast is made up of your usual Coen suspects, but that necessary lived-in quality is missing, even from an artificially-crafted environment such as the suburbs. The only person in the entire ensemble who knows what kind of movie he’s in is Oscar Isaac, who’s playing a ludicrously corrupt insurance investigator, who comes around the Lodge household once he starts seeing “little red flags” on their claim paperwork. He’s over-the-top and still smooth-as-fuck, and he’s having a great time both with the era and with the rhythms of his dialogue. Then, realizing that the movie’s done something right for once, Clooney and the Coens find a nice and quick way to get him out of the picture so that Suburbicon can continue towards whatever nihilistic nonsense we need in order to get out of this movie feeling like we’d seen something substantial.
The best thing you can really say about it is that the plot makes sense, and it becomes mildly compelling as it starts to unravel, but sitting through the dregs of that first hour isn’t worth the chaos in the last 40 minutes. Clooney’s invisible here — whatever big directorial flourishes he was saving for this one disappear underneath the screenwriting credit — and his style apes the brothers enough that it’s hard to distinguish it from their generic imitators. Robert Elswit’s always-lovely cinematography makes it look like Coen movie, that’s a given. Sure, the production design is nice and all — you can tell a lot of time was put into elegantly crafting the ’50s aesthetic here, and it looks nice I guess — but it’s all superficial bullshit that repeats the same old dumb aphorisms about suburban life that every movie goes to. People are the same! Cookie-cutter life is horrible! The ideals of planned communities often are undercut by their stark and evil realities! Did you know they’re racist, too? It’s got none of the black wit of works like Joe Dante’s The Burbs or even Adult Swim’s Moral Orel (which for my money is probably the best modern-day television satire of that era), and it doesn’t even have the modest thrills or profundity of even the worst Coen Brothers movie.
And that’s not a hard feat! Intolerable Cruelty was a thing! You think Clooney would have learned something.