Friday, October 27, 2017

Suburbicon: It's a con, all right

Suburbicon (2017) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for violence, profanity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang

Bad movies prompt all manner of conversational snorts and giggles, while heading home and often well into the following day.

Gardner (Matt Damon) and his sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore), react in stunned
silence to the newest ludicrous indignity inflicted upon their family.
Really bad movies leave us in stunned silence, unable to process the why and how such a travesty could have survived the lengthy vetting process that must be endured by all major studio productions.

This is a really bad movie.

The Coen brothers have hit both extremes during a long and productive career, and of late they’ve been getting sloppier; A Serious Man, Hail, Caesar! and their misguided 2012 remake of Gambit are a far cry from Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

Suburbicon may be their worst stinker yet.

As a satire — and I admit, that’s speculation — this film’s message is too garbled, sloppy and tasteless. But it’s far too weird, random and exaggerated to be taken seriously, with almost every character an overblown burlesque. They may as well be wearing clown suits.

Co-scripters George Clooney (who also directs) and Grant Heslov appear to have been inspired by the post-WWII, postcard-perfect Levittown suburban communities: the sort of cheerful towns characterized in TV shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. What’s often lost to history is the fact that Federal House Administration lenders restricted housing rental and sales agreements, in all Levittown developments, to (and I quote) “the Caucasian race.”

That issue came to boil in August 1957, when William and Daisy Myers moved their family into a section of Pennsylvania’s Levittown community, becoming the first African-Americans in the all-white enclave. The nasty results were captured by filmmakers Lee Bobker and Lester Becker in a documentary titled Crisis in Levittown, Pa., which remains jaw-dropping, cringe-worthy viewing (and is readily available online).

So: Part of Cooney’s film, set in the late 1950s in a Norman Rockwellian, Levittown-esque community, depicts — with impressive authenticity to actual events — what occurs during the first few weeks after an African-American family moves into a home that shares a back fence with the house belonging to Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and their adolescent son Nicky (Noah Jupe).

The problem is that this concept has been married — by shotgun — to a shelved Coen brothers script called Suburbicon, populated by the usual Coen misanthropes and overwhelmed “regular folks” with poor judgment, and a proclivity for ill-advised decisions.

It’s not a good fit.

Clooney likely believed that everything could be linked by the mantra that Things Are Not As They Appear. Suburbicon residents seem friendly, kind-hearted and decent, but they’re actually — all of them — despicable racists. Gardner is introduced as an honest, hard-working family man, and Damon plays him as an ordinary, white-collar American who likely plays catch with his son, and takes pride in his role as provider.

But as events proceed, this impression of Gardner begins to fray around the edges.

Similarly, the horrifying, late-night invasion of Gardner’s home by thugs Ira and Louis (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) seems a direct response to Nicky’s having been encouraged to include new back yard neighbor Andy (Tony Espinosa) in local baseball activities. The cause and effect appears obvious: a Twilight Zone response to those with the impudence to violate Stepford community rules.

Again, subsequent events make that a hasty assumption.

Trouble is, that end of this misbegotten narrative has absolutely nothing to do with the escalating hostility endured by the new neighbors: a parallel plotline which, ultimately, goes nowhere. And, in so doing, becomes an insensitive, tone-deaf scenario that does nothing to address, indict or even comment upon race relations in our pre-civil rights era.

This highly charged situation has no point of view, and — indeed — no point at all. In effect, this half of Clooney’s film merely revisits the 1957 documentary, as if rubbing our noses in bad behavior is, in and of itself, sufficient.

It isn’t. It’s also egregiously one-sided “history.” While the events recreated here are accurate, they’re incomplete; plenty of Levittown residents were outraged by the heinous behavior of their racist neighbors, and stood up for the new family.

As far as the more grotesque half of this film, Gardner and Rose — confined to a wheelchair, following a recent traffic accident — share their home with her twin sister Margaret, whose constant help and support have made her a semi-permanent resident. Both women are played by Moore, thanks to the cinematic trickery also currently on display in Breathe. (We seem to be having a run on actors playing twins.)

It’s hard to view any of the adult performances as actual acting, because they all move, talk and behave stiffly, like Stepford robots (which I’m sure was a deliberate choice on Clooney’s part).

Damon’s Gardner, for all his surface ordinariness, is blankly emotionless and quiet to the point of near immobility; there’s no there in his expressions. Moore makes Rose compliant and withdrawn; in contrast, Moore’s Margaret is bubbly and artificially cheerful, an insincere smile plastered onto her face. She often natters in the sing-song manner of a character awaiting the next number in a stage musical.

Rose and Margaret’s brother Mitch almost feels genuine. Gary Basaraba plays him as a bull in a china shop: a socially inept fellow who tries too hard to be part of the family, which merely pushes everybody away. We’ve all endured one of these relatives, particularly with respect to the uneasy dynamic he shares with Nicky, forever wanting to be the boy’s bestest uncle.

We never see much of Mr. Meyers (Leith M. Burke), but Karimah Westbrook brings grace and dignity to her mostly silent role as Mrs. Meyers, keeping her head high as things get worse.

Oscar Isaac injects a very welcome note of acting prowess as a third-act character whose identity and intentions I’ll not reveal here, out of respect for the poor souls still willing to give this flick a try. Suffice it to say that things truly come alive once Isaac appears ... because, yes, on top of its many other sins, this film is boring.

Nicky and Andy are the only two truly normal characters, and (of course) that’s also deliberate: two children resilient enough to get on with friendship and kid stuff, while doing their best to ignore the idiotic behavior of all adults. Both Jupe and Espinosa are excellent young actors; I’d love to see them paired in a serious coming-of-age story set during the same period.

Jupe gets put through quite an emotional wringer during the third act, and he rises — quite persuasively — to each occasion.

Production designer Jim Bissell is the true star here, having crafted an impressively immense, cookie-cutter Suburbicon from actual neighborhoods and CGI enhancement. The pastel colors, period furniture and cars — along with the “anonymity and sameness” clothing from costume designer Jenny Eagen — are both authentic and hilariously square.

Indeed, this film’s best sequence is its prologue: a faux “sales video” that drips with irony, and is designed to entice folks into joining this idyllic community. Too bad Clooney et al couldn’t deliver on anything else.

That prologue aside, Suburbicon is an ugly, repulsive and disgusting mess. Adding insult to injury, it’s also a spectacular example of the “what happens next?” script that deliberately, annoyingly, leaves viewers hanging.

Seek your pleasures elsewhere. This one’s a total, jaw-dropping waste of time.

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