Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Memory Of This Place

Sometimes you check out of a film right away. You don’t want to, it just happens. There’s something about it you don’t connect with, something that feels off or not correctly thought out and there’s no getting around it. You may as well leave right then but you don’t, partly because you went to all the trouble to go to the theater, pay your money and sit down to see the thing so you might as well give it a chance that things will suddenly turn around. That doesn’t happen very much and it didn’t really with George Clooney’s SUBURBICON, a film that did close to zero business when it opened at the end of October 2017 and was forgotten almost instantly. At first when I saw the film at a sparsely attended matinee on opening weekend I wasn’t even sure what this was supposed to be, the first few scenes so alienating that it played like we were being dropped into a film partway through and left to fend for ourselves. But, as is sometimes the case with these things, once the mechanics behind the plot began to reveal itself about a half-hour in I suddenly found myself getting interested. This didn’t save the film but at the very least I was curious which is better than nothing and, besides, I’ll always take a failure that has stuff going on over a mediocrity that remains consistent all the way through. Of course, neither is really ideal but there are times when you take what you can get. With SUBURBICON, a film so hated and ignored that only a year later it barely seems like it even existed, at least this was something.

In 1959 the peaceful tranquility of the post-war planned community known as Suburbicon is disrupted when the African-American Mayers family (Leith Burke and Karimah Westbrook) move in to their new home, immediately causing friction among the neighbors who waste no time beginning to protest. Meanwhile, a shocking home invasion nearby results in the death of town resident Rose Lodge (Julianne Moore) leaving husband Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) to pick up the pieces with young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and Rose’s sister Margaret (also Moore) who stays with them to help out as they recover. But as things get worse for the Mayers with neighbors harassing their home at all hours, Nicky makes a startling discovery which convinces him that there may have been more to the robbery than he first realized and insurance investigator Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) begins snooping around the Gardner home in search of answers as well.

According to George Clooney that when he screened SUBURBICON for Norman Lear, the TV legend’s first response was to say, “This is the angriest film I’ve ever seen.” Which may have been exactly what Clooney wanted. The project began life years ago as an early script written by the Coen Brothers then after being pulled out of mothballs was reworked by Clooney with partner Grant Heslov and both teams are credited with the screenplay. The background of the project has interest as any unmade script by the Coen Brothers would and it certainly should be included at least as a footnote when discussing their filmography (as for how great THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is, we’ll save that for another time) but while watching it this only matters so much. It feels like the basic story of SUBURBICON contains elements of neo-noir and dark humor with social commentary in the background to give it all some context but plays as if while in production George Clooney became influenced over how ugly things were getting in the real world, and who can blame him, which caused a shift in how he approached the material and what the film ultimately turned into. The noir elements become almost incidental, the humor feels bled out which leaves only the social angle of the whole thing, the place where that anger comes from, which in the end is basically what the film winds up being and it unfortunately never builds into something more than that single emotion.

Whether intentionally or not, SUBURBICON feels disorienting right from the start in how it delays the introduction of several main characters then deliberately throws us into a frightening situation before we’ve even gotten our bearings. It makes the first section of the film almost clinical but also distancing since without any definite point of view it’s not clear at first who or what the film is actually about. When the twist introducing the noir elements via what actually led to the death of the wife occurs close to the half-hour mark this at least helped me to finally get engaged in the basic story but too much of SUBURBICON feels underutilized, focusing on the wrong details from scene to scene and sometimes even shot to shot. Elements feel like they were possibly designed to play as overt references to certain classic films, what with the general DOUBLE INDEMNITY nature of the storyline and particularly a VERTIGO nod involving a brunette taking the place of an identical blonde who has departed early. But too often the film doesn’t do much with the visual possibilities of everything going on in the Lodge household, not even making such touches a clear part of the narrative as if it simply doesn’t have the interest. Too often it’s more interested in getting right to the next plot point and though crisply photographed by the great Robert Elswit, it feels like the Scope compositions have too much air in them as if the shots lack any real focus so as a result the film itself is missing that focus as well.

The point of SUBURBICON of course is the inherent racism that explodes from the residents of the town and how they disrupt everything by insisting on how much the new neighbors are disrupting everything while taking no notice of what’s actually going on right down the street. This makes sense on a surface level but it never bothers to make the Mayers family into actual characters, giving them nothing to do but merely act stoic in the face of all this horrific racism. They barely even have any dialogue through the entire film beyond their son played by Tony Espinosa who befriends Nicky and passes on the advice of “Don’t show ‘em you’re scared” which turns out to serve him well. The storyline is based on William and Daisy Myers, an African-American couple who moved into the all-white Levittown, PA in 1957 and the eventual riots which ensued so the idea behind this is all well and good. But instead of dealing with them as people it merely makes them a sort of moral counterpoint to the main action, never staying with them for long, never acknowledging that they might have much to say as if Clooney decided he wasn’t allowed to put words in their mouths. Aaron Sorkin, writing in Vulture recently about the pitfalls of adapting the new production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for Broadway mentioned, “In 2018, using black characters only as atmosphere is as noticeable as it is wrong,” and, well, that’s what SUBURBICON does. Maybe one way to make it work would have been if the true-life storyline served as merely as an abstract punctuation to the main action as if in a Robert Altman film, perhaps with the family only ever seen in the background while the insurance plotline plays out letting us make the connection for ourselves. The main plot involving the Lodge family should be twisty, nasty, a pitch black comedy noir but Clooney’s direction is so intent on focusing on the Mayers that it has no patience for locating any of those pleasures and in some ways he’s right considering how ugly it all is but without any of that it merely becomes a film interested in talking around the problem. With no sense of dark humor being brought out it makes the main plot secondary, as if he wants to get back to that other house but when it’s there the film can’t spend much time because, after all, nothing has been written for them to say. What the film seems to forget is how some of the best pieces of pure genre filmmaking ever keep those elements as mere subtext and it’s the power of those messages which emerge that help them stay with us to dig in and uncover whatever we might find. SUBURBICON just keeps all that on the surface so there’s nothing to really explore, making it all play as kind of a void.

There are bits of behavior that stand out, such as the awkwardness in how people respond to tragedy and the recurring theme of people looking for scapegoats while refusing to accept responsibility for what they’ve done. The film smartly drops hints of Gardner’s past so we can piece together enough of the mistakes he’s made as he refuses to cop to his part in them. “It’s not my fault…” one character unaccountably says during a key scene and just about any major character in the film could say it, trying to pass on the blame just as the entire population of Suburbicon are trying to blame the Mayers for moving in where they’re not wanted. The very artificiality of the setting serves the film well in how it displays this particularly when the expected shocking violence erupts but even that could have been pushed further, the occasional visual foreshadowing making it seem like this all could have been more adventurous in how it was shot. Gardner and Margaret each refer to Nicky to his face as a “little boy” at various points and their treatment of him extends to the wholesome image of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich alongside a glass of milk being used as a potentioal weapon at one point, a metaphor so good that it deserves a better film but it still works as a symbol for people doing anything they can to stop the future. Which is clever but the film needed to find more humor in that nastiness to get mixed up with the melodrama, playing too much of it so naturalistic that it lets the comic tension out of too many scenes. One other film that comes to mind is Bob Balaban’s sadly neglected 1989 film PARENTS which I haven’t seen for years but remember as an unrelentingly pitch black satire of 50s suburbia and consumerism, that in spite of a slim plot balanced the horror and comedy in a way this film unfortunately loses track of.

Some of the threads do have potential like the uncle who wants to help even though his bachelor status keeps him out of that more normal world and in his own unknowing way provides a sense of goodness in all this horror. Even in its clumsiness I find the noir possibilities of the plot intriguing within this suburban veneer of absolute perfection that people are trying to maintain and what is found underneath. When the claims investigator played by Oscar Isaac final enters the film, for a few minutes it remembers to have some fun egged on by the Bernard Herrmann-by-way-of-Danny Elfman score by Alexandre Desplat. But to be honest, I don’t like SUBURBICON very much at all and most of it plays so blunt in its anger that reading a description of the film’s tone would be about as useful as actually sitting through it. There’s a sharpness missing, even when the dialogue wraps around to itself in that Coen Brothers style (however much remains from the early draft, Clooney keeps acknowledging the Coens on the Blu-ray audio commentary when discussing the dialogue) along with characters repeating phrases to get them to feel better as if those words alone would solve all their problems in their tiny heads incapable of honest reflection. But it feels like Clooney didn’t want to focus on these points, merely paying attention to the bigger issue. The didacticism worked in GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (probably his best directorial work) since focusing on the issue at hand was all that film was supposed to be but here there needs to be something more so when potentially big moments like Nicky making a horrifying discovery in the basement occur they fall a little too flat and even when the calm attempts to gaslight him are well played the scenes have no real impact.

The Coen influence is felt and Gardner Lodge certainly feels like a cousin to William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in FARGO. Even the recurring “It’s not my fault” theme feels like a precursor to A SERIOUS MAN’s “I didn’t do anything” and the preoccupations with people’s religions such as how Gardner is mistaken as Jewish in one scene also feel like they’re out of that film. It’s loaded with such thematic diversions but as a great man once said, “If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic.” The message might be valid but that alone doesn’t do it much good as a film. While watching SUBURBICON, I don’t want to be there, I don’t want to be around these people and I barely even like thinking about it very much. Then again, I suppose that can easily describe the world we’re all living in at the moment so maybe Clooney was onto something with his approach to the material. It ends on a small gesture meant to look towards something better but after all that anger I’m not sure I buy it since even kids grow up, after all. But maybe my perspective is skewered since it’s been a lousy year. Maybe longer. There’s a movie in SUBURBICON that I wish was in the movie, it just didn’t figure out the mixture of whatever that was. At least it was going for something, as misconceived as some of those goals were, so I’ll give it that much. Better that than a film without any ideas in the first place.

Matt Damon and Julianne Moore deserve credit for committing to such unpleasant characters and not holding back, although it feels like there’s something missing from their performances; it’s not that they need to be more likable, but that they feel like characterizations that haven’t been totally fleshed out. Damon plays his role as if some unspoken rage is building up with no attempt to make his character likable and his big scene at the end where everything comes out he brings total focus to the moment. As the sister-turned-wife & mother Julianne Moore plays her cheerfulness with a completely blithe denial of her actions as she attempts to talk her way through things but there’s oddly more characterization found in the few lines she has as the wheelchair-bound wife, playing someone with no interest in niceties or politeness anymore but still unable to put the pieces together of what’s really going on. As the son, Noah Jupe does have dialogue but it’s the look on his face in every scene that matters with the realization of all the lies he’s being told sinks in with the way he holds it together during Damon’s climactic speech trying with all of his might to hold back how he really feels. As the insurance investigator, Oscar Isaac as the insurance investigator is the one who gives the film a jolt bouncing off Julianne Moore in their scenes together and for once somebody in the film really feels like they’ve come to play. It’s not so much appropriate for the tone of what the film is but what it maybe should have been which also goes for the nastiness of Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler as the two crooks and Jack Conley as the investigating policeman—they get the tone right too. Gary Basaraba, the Jaguar exec with an interest in Joan on MAD MEN is Mitch the uncle with good intentions and there’s a brief glimpse of actual humanity thanks to him while Pamela Dunlap, also recognizable from MAD MEN as the mother of Henry Francis, is a customer at the local supermarket.

Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. This is an odd case where I emotionally disengaged from SUBURBICON so early on that when what it was doing became clear it almost put me on the film’s side. Who knows what the film would have been if it had been made years ago or even if George Clooney had simply shot that version but, of course, that alone wouldn’t make him the Coen Brothers when he directed it. And there is something to be said about the anger he wants to express in a film made for a world where things like what it portrays seem to be happening all the time. This isn’t a movie about 1959, after all, that’s just when it happens to be set. Regardless, our own personal expectations may not always matter. Maybe SUBURBICON doesn’t jell and maybe it makes several crucial mistakes and maybe the way it attempts to make its statement is misguided but, in fairness, it isn’t totally wrong. At least there’s that.


Roger said...

Great discussion of this film, and what seems to be at the center of its "failure." A mismatch of intent, tone, and the 2 or 3 more drafts that might have gotten the things it needed to have into the text, and the things that weren't as important into the texture.

It sits there, trying to be something it's unequipped to be. As you say, still a fascinating document probably undone by Clooney's need to be make sure it says what it hopes it does, and his inability to find that pieces to do so.

Keep up the good work, Roger

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Many thanks for that, Roger, and it sounds like we're on the same page. The script didn't quite get there and, as you put it, the film was somehow unequipped to achieve its goals as if it left out a crucial element. I'm still not even sure why I wrote about this film but thanks again for reading, very glad you liked it!