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SUBURBICON Proves George Clooney is Not the Coen Brothers (TIFF Review)

George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, Suburbicon, is a politically-charged thriller that juxtaposes two stories happening in the same fictional, Pleasantville-esque town. In one, the first black family to move into the neighborhood is shunned, abused, and terrorized by the ostensibly liberal community. It starts with whispers and stares and ends with broken windows and arson. In another, a cute, innocent white kid whose mother was recently killed by burglars begins to suspect that his father was somehow complicit in the crime.

So what exactly do these two seemingly unrelated storylines have to do with each other?

No, really, I’m asking.

Intellectually, you may get what Clooney (and the script by Joel and Ethan Coen, with revisions by Clooney and Grant Heslov) is going for: the townsfolk are focused on the wrong house, blinded by their prejudices, and missing the real evil that is hiding among them. But in every other way — dramatically, narratively, and visually — there is nothing to connect them. There are some fun moments in the film’s back half, but Suburbicon is only the latest in an increasingly long list of flops that demonstrate that the unflappable movie star is better suited in front of the camera.

The film picks up steam as it goes, but it also shows how much harder it is to set up character and plot than to knock down the pins. The scene in which Clooney pal Matt Damon is introduced as Gardner Lodge, the husband-turned-murder-suspect is among the most crucial — and poorly-directed — in the film. Gardner rouses his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) out of bed in the middle of the night and brings him to the kitchen table, where his wife (Julianne Moore) and her twin sister (also Moore) are being tied up by a pair of goons (Glenn Fleshler and Michael D. Cohen). The criminals incapacitate each family member with an ether-soaked rag, but they purposely give a bit extra to the mother, and she dies.

What’s difficult about this scene, quite simply, is that we have no idea what’s going on. Gardner seems relatively calm about the entire incident, which makes sense in retrospect, but at the time is plain confusing. A great director can keep the audience in the dark about a scene even while it is happening, but they have to convince us first that they are worthy of their trust. There is no simple way to do this; rather, you can just feel when you’re in good hands. That’s not the feeling you get with Clooney at the helm, and when he tries to sell us on a mystery, we end up baffled and irritated.

The script, an early junior varsity effort from the Coens (they reportedly wrote it just after 1984’s Blood Simple), does not do him any favors, functioning more as a genre exercise than the richly-textured work for which the Coens are known. Nicky suspects his father as the murder conspirator after he fails to identity the actual killers during a police line-up, but the boy has little to do after that but watch as the plot unravels. He is a hero without agency, just as Gardner is, we think, a villain without characterization. Damon has occasionally been called on to give a bland performance (in the recent, superior Downsizing, he’s the stable center in a bizarre, twisty plot), but here he is a spring that never bothered to coil.

Only one actor truly emerges from this mess unscathed. Halfway through, just when you may be thinking about walking out, Oscar Isaac shows up as an insurance agent with a nose for nonsense. As he interrogates the remaining twin sister, plying her with greasy charm and running logic traps to tease out the truth, Suburbicon comes fully alive. But just as quickly as he arrived, Isaac departs the film, leaving a gaping hole in his wake. I guess the secret to making the most out of Suburbicon is to only stay for a few minutes.

Rating: 2 Disappointingly Bland Burritos out of 5.

Images: Paramount Pictures

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