You might say that 2017 was an annus horribilis for Matt Damon. Not only did he lose his father to cancer, Matt’s films all failed at the box office. (Okay, THOR: RAGNAROK, in which he had a cameo appearance, was the exception.) After the high from his starring turn as the astronaut who “sciences the shit” out of stuff in 2015’s THE MARTIAN, Matt came crashing back to Earth with such high profile duds as THE GREAT WALL and DOWNSIZING. (The latter film is scheduled to hit our screens on January 25th.) Unfortunately, his third film from last year, SUBURBICON, which is opening here now, fizzled out as well, though I wouldn’t fault him for it. This failure clearly belongs to his buddy, director and co-writer, George Clooney.
Based on a screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen, SUBURBICON is the story of one family’s criminal undoing in this eponymous 1959, cookie-cut, bedroom community of picket fences and manicured lawns. Scratch that. It’s also the story of white privilege and racial injustice in post-war America. It’s two stories for the price of one. It’s been rumoured, and it seems to be a plausible one, that the Coen Brothers wrote the story about the Lodge family a while back and then shelved it because it was too similar to their big hit from a few years ago, FARGO. Clooney and his long-time writing partner, Grant Heslov, decided pick up the screenplay and add in the second story about racial tension, perhaps to make a statement about life in Trump’s America. The problem, though, is that the two stories don’t mesh. Only a very thin thread ties them together and they’re tonally quite different. In the end, neither satisfies. On the one side, we have an amusing noirish satire that, although it’s similar to FARGO, needs more fleshing out, and on the other, we have a social commentary that resolves itself far too simply.
Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is a mild-mannered executive who lives in this all-white fictional suburb located somewhere in America along with his wheelchair-bound wife, Rose (Julianne Moore, MAGGIE’S PLAN; STILL ALICE; DON JON), and their 10-year-old son, Nicky (Noah Jupe, WONDER). One night, the Lodges are visited by two men who tie them up and chloroform them. Rose dies and her twin sister, Margaret (also Moore) decides to move into the house to look after Nicky. But, as we come to learn, this was not a simple robbery and Gardner quickly finds himself under scrutiny from the police, insurance claims adjuster Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac, the new STAR WARS franchise; A MOST VIOLENT YEAR; EX MACHINA; INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS), and even young Nicky. As the noose tightens around Gardner, he resorts to extreme measures to keep his life together. Meanwhile, the Mayers family moves into the house behind theirs. They are the only Black family in community and the neighbours are none too happy about that state of affairs. Short of setting a cross on fire on the Mayers’ lawn, the neighbours band together to make life miserable for the new residents, hoping that the Mayerses will pack up and leave. But the Mayerses are resolute and the parents tell their 10-year-old son, Andy (Tony Espinosa, THE BIRTH OF A NATION), to never show fear. This is the lesson Andy imparts on his only friend, Nicky.
Leaving aside the second story because that one really goes nowhere and I can’t even recall hearing Mr. Mayers speak, the first story of the Lodges does have some amusing Coenesque moments (though not enough of them) and the performances are all fine, especially that of Oscar Isaac, who takes full advantage of his brief time on screen. Unfortunately, the film goes back and forth between the two stories, shattering any momentum either one starts to gather. Maybe the Lodge story alone would have been enough but then the film would have been seen as an inferior copy of FARGO. The second story alone, too, may have been enough, though we’ve already seen better films that deal with racial injustice in America. Instead, Clooney has given us a mixed bag of blah that misses its marks.
You can skip seeing SUBURBICON. Matt will be back in June with OCEAN’S 8. Let’s hope that one will put him back on track.
No Facebook Live today because of a crappy Internet connection. Instead, listen to the review recorded live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, January 4th at 8:30 am HK time!
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