George Clooney's Suburbicon is a film so bafflingly bad, so fundamentally ill-conceived, so wanting in basic tenets of tone and narrative, it almost feels like the work of a first-time director—someone who simply hasn't figured out how to tell a story yet, even if (like Clooney) they've spent plenty of time making other people's movies.
But that's the most puzzling conundrum of Suburbicon: It's the fifth film George Clooney has directed. It's the strangest thing; after an impressive debut picture and Oscar-nominated follow-up, each subsequent Clooney movie has been at least slightly (sometimes considerably) worse than the last. Contrary to the learn-and-improve pattern of most artists, Clooney is somehow devolving. How does this happen?
Suburbicon provides some clues, when laid out on the morgue slab for a proper autopsy. A pat, uninspired commentary on American life and suburban enclaves in the late 1950s, complete with peppy music, retro design, and comforting voice-over, it concerns two households connected by their backyards: the Mayers family, who are the first African-Americans in the neighborhood, and the Lodges, who've recently suffered a tragedy, and are about to experience another one.
It says a lot about Clooney, noted Good Liberal though he may be, that he thinks we're more interested in what's happening in the white family's home. Put simply (and free of spoilers), one night the Lodges fall victim to a home invasion—perpetrated by two white men, Dick and Perry types. But the neighbors nonetheless note that this is not the kind of thing that used to happen in their safe neighborhood, before those people moved in.
Yet that's about as connected as these story strands get; for most of its running time, Suburbicon concerns the odd actions and poor decisions of patriarch Garner Lodge (Matt Damon) and the sister-in-law (Julianne Moore) with whom he's getting perhaps too familiar.
These plot machinations come courtesy of Joel and Ethan Coen, who share screenplay credit with Clooney and his frequent writing and producing partner Grant Heslov, and like the TV adaptation of Fargo, Suburbicon often feels like Coen fan fiction (albeit far more poorly done). In addition to three-time Coen leading man Clooney, all three of its marquee players (Damon, Moore, and Oscar Isaac, whose two scenes are easily the picture's best) have starred in Coen movies, the narrative is filled with Fargo echoes, and it even includes a scene in which a bellowing fat man is immersed in flames.
And perhaps it takes seeing someone else screw up a Coens screenplay to appreciate the delicate balancing act of their direction. Suburbicon is a genuinely grim slog, full of loathsome people doing horrible things; by its penultimate scene, of a father terrorizing and threatening his son as tears roll down the little boy's face, it's unclear why anyone thought this hateful little exercise was worth the trouble. What is this? It certainly isn't fun, or smart, or funny.
Yet even with all the film's dead-end scenes and nowhere storylines, it's still difficult to convey— much less explain—the degree to which the "B" plot of bigotry and redlining are just… background. (Color, if you will.) Mr. Mayers does not, to my recollection, have a single line of dialogue; his wife has a handful, but spends most of her limited screen time putting on a brave face for neighbors who first peer and gawk, and then chant and riot in front of their home. If this sounds like two entirely unconnected movies smashed together, it turns out that's exactly what it is; according to the press notes, Clooney and Heslov were working on a fact-based script about Daisy and William Myers, the first black family in Levittown, Pennsylvania, when Clooney recalled an unproduced script the Coens had sent him back in 1999. "At that point," Heslov says, "George had the idea to take the existing Suburbicon script and set it in Levittown during the week the Mayers [ sic] moved in."
This was, no two ways about it, a terrible idea, fundamentally miscalculating the appeal and approach of either potential project. And when you talk about mashing up two screenplays as incongruent as these, it's worth asking what kind of movie Clooney wanted to make – and what, exactly, he ended up with. A dark comedy? A tragedy? A thriller? A character study? Social commentary? All of the above? None?
Maybe the Coens could've done something with this material (though it's telling that they chose not to), in its original form, married only to the unifying specificity of their cock-eyed worldview. Clooney doesn't have that, or even—at this point, five movies in—a style of his own to stand in for it. His debut feature, the film adaptation of Chuck Barris' "unauthorized autobiography" Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, crackles with the giddy electricity of a first-time filmmaker shooting the works; it's ingeniously executed, full of clever staging stunts borrowed from live-TV dramas, framed by oddball compositions and saturated by blown-out colour temperatures, flourishes which seem the contribution of gonzo cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (with whom Clooney had just worked on David O. Russell's Three Kings).
His follow-up, Good Night and Good Luck, is a good deal more austere but still engaging, a biopic/valentine to Edward R. Murrow told entirely through the lens of his on-air battles with Senator Joseph McCarthy. It lacks the manic energy of Confessions, but it's still a success—and Clooney's last. He followed it with the serviceable but uninspired period sports movie/screwball comedy homage Leatherheads, and then the well-acted but dull and predictable political thriller The Ides of March, which gave way to the lifeless WWII globe-trotter The Monuments Men.
Each film has, with almost surgical precision, removed more of the wit and playfulness that made his initial outings so intoxicating, replacing them with a languorous flat-footedness. He now seems to direct less out of passion than obligation, though to whom is unclear. The work is increasingly both ill-received and commercially underwhelming, so the continued opportunities are puzzling—he's a terrific actor and a charismatic screen presence (one of the last movie stars, we're often told), but is Hollywood really this invested in the idea that George Clooney is a Redford-style multi-hyphenate?
Who knows. But I know this much: at the rate George Clooney's going, I can't imagine how terrible his next movie's going to be.