Skip to main content

That kind of nonsense can come back and haunt you down the road. If you killed her, I mean.

Suburbicon
(2017)

(SPOILERS) I wonder what the Coen brothers really thought of George Clooney (and Grant Heslov) rewriting their long-on-the-shelf screenplay. Clooney’s record with such tampering isn’t exactly spotless (Charlie Kaufman was most unimpressed with the changes he made to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), and his decision to mash up their '50s-set crime story with their own segregation drama, as a reaction to Trump, is only deleterious to the whole. Apparently the Coens gave him their blessing, but they were probably just being polite.


Because everything about the Mayers plot, in which a black family moves to the whites-only Suburbicon community and ensuing tensions that erupt – based on Clooney and Heslov studying the Levittown, Pennsylvania case – feels awkwardly grafted onto the main meat. The family are nothing more than cyphers, with no story or characters of their own beside the functionality of representing the issue under discussion; Clooney makes his point about the scapegoating of minorities, but when it's this cack-handed, he'd have been better off just holding a press conference (he'd certainly have reached a larger audience). 


As a consequence, the subplot is well-intentioned but trite. Which is a shame, as the Coens side of the movie is entirely engrossing, twisted and full of dark wit (it also cannot have gone unnoticed by Clooney that overtly political statements are pretty much anathema to the brothers). It has common DNA with their other botched murder tales Blood Simple (which it was written subsequently to) and Fargo. Particularly Fargo, with Matt Damon's idiot husband thinking he can get away with murdering his wife bearing more than a passing resemblance to William H Macy thinking likewise. 


This plotline doesn't just concern a bumbler, though; Gardner Lodge (Damon) and his sister-in-law Margaret (Julianne Moore) are full-blooded sociopaths, mutually dependent, but if one or the other's survival hinged on the other’s not, they'd probably persuaded themselves it was for the best. Certainly, that's the crux of the opening scene, in which robbers break in to the family home and chloroform them, including son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and his wheelchair bound mother Rose (also Moore) who dies from the overdose. It looks iffy from the off, and a few scenes later it's confirmed that Gardner and Margaret concocted the scheme together. Unfortunately for Gardner, he hasn't paid the robbers (Glenn Fleshler and Ale Hassell) and he's careless enough to let Nicky see the police line-up, during which he and Margaret deny they’ve ever seen the perps before. Then there's the police chief (Jack Conley), who knows something ain't right.


The coup here is that much of the unfolding is from Nicky's perspective, and Clooney has fortunately picked a fine performer in Jupe, who can more than carry the material. He comes to realise there are murderers in his midst and can't disguise the fact, to the point where Margaret is intent on poisoning him. It's nightmarish stuff, and because of that perspective, even with Damon being a doofus, Suburbicon lacks the lightness and warmth of Fargo. It takes the entrance of Oscar Isaac as a cocky insurance investigator, intent on getting his cut or sending Gardner and Margaret down, to add a dash of the flippantly anarchic. It's great to see Isaac playing something worthy of him, since he's been served a spate of vanilla leads of late that tend to make you forget what all the fuss was about.


His is a pure Coens role, and the best thing about this movie is recognising the rhythms of their dialogue when they’re uninterrupted. "I love my sister and I love my son" protests Margaret. "You love her husband too" shoots back Isaac, not missing a beat. The police chief thinks Lodge's name sounds Jewish, to which he frustratedly responds "I'm an Episcopalian" (I'm sure they simply thought the way the word rolls around the tongue was funny enough in itself to include it). 


And to be fair to Clooney – not that there's any upside to his script meddling – he rises to the challenge of directing the material in a manner not seen since his debut, probably because it's the most energetic screenplay he's come across since then. Isaac's demise, having run from the Lodge house with a belly full of lye, comes in a deserted street – everyone is off rioting – via a poker, and it's queasily off-kilter. Then there's the climax, with Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) coming to Nicky's rescue, and the action taking place entirely from Nicky's perspective under the bed. The subsequent father-son talk is also duly disturbing, and I'd much rather see Damon essaying this kind of part than his overdose of everyman charm in The Martian.


Clooney and Heslov should probably swear off the writing gig, if their work here is anything to go by, but they'll probably keep getting projects off the ground – this one was a resounding flop – on the basis that their last The Monuments Men, did pretty well despite being as dramatically inert as his earlier Leatherheads. George has made a pretty decent Coens brothers movie in Suburbia. Unfortunately, he also made a Heslov/Clooney one.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

Doctor, eh? You’re not in the best of shape yourself, though, are you?

Doctor Who  Season 26 – Worst to Best
I’m not a big Seventh Doctor fan. For me, Doctor Who pretty much ended with Season 23 (and not because it was awful: see here). Yes, there have been a few nu-Who reprieves (mostly notably Matt Smith’s first season), but the McCoy era flaunted an abundance of sins, from a lead who wasn’t up to snuff, to a script-editor messaging his social conscience wrapped in a breeze block (or bilge bag), to production values that made any given earlier era look absurdly lavish in comparison. And then there was the “masterplan” (which at least lends Season 24 a rather innocuous and relatively inoffensive quality by contrast).

Nevertheless, on the occasions I do return to the era, I’m always minded to give it a fair shake. And while that resolve inevitably crumbles within minutes, under the duress of cold harsh reality, it has, at times, led to a positive reappraisal (The Happiness Patrol, and, to an extent, perhaps unfathomably, Time and the Rani). So we’ll see ho…

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …