Wednesday, November 01, 2017

the american dream, unraveling

Nothing can undermine a good film quicker than preconceived notions or baseless expectations. And George Clooney's exceptional "Suburbicon" has been confronted by both, misunderstood by the moviegoing public (which has officially devolved into a state of permanent adolescence) and critics (who, one would think, should know better but generally don't).

I'd rather not know what might exist in the minds of the franchise-happy movie patrons who keep the Hollywood studios alive, well and obscenely profitable these days and I guess that I shouldn't expect much from contemporary critics either, but it baffles me when a film is casually dismissed simply because it's not what people expected or wanted it to be.

Prior to its release, the impression was that "Suburbicon" would be a fictionalized account, by way of the Coen Brothers, of the disappointing, shameful behavior of white people when a black family moved into Levittown, Pa. in 1957. It wasn't exactly America's greatest moment.

 The expectation was the film would actually be about a black family. But, wait! The Coens are noted for approaching their narratives circuitously and adding clever, inappropriate curlicues for entertainment value. And that's exactly the approach that Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov took and honored when they dusted off and filmed the Coens' script. It would be really rather foolhardy to expect the Coen-sourced "Suburbicon" to be a serious, cautionary tale about race relations.

The film is less about the plight of the tormented black family who moves into a blindingly white suburban community in the 1950s, than about the general awfulness of white people who have not changed since the '50s. Clooney is nothing if not brave to make a film in which, except for its little pre-teen hero, is devoid of a single Caucasian who is decent or likable.

The black family in "Suburbicon" - The Mayers - remain on the periphery throughout the film, a plot point that has outraged some critics. They are there simply to be bystanders to the shameful behavior of the white families who surround them and resent them. And especially problematic for reviewers is the fact that the film's leading white family - The Lodges - has barely noticed or is even aware that a black family has moved in.

Matt Damon plays the patriarch, Gardner Lodge, and in a more mundane, straightforward movie, Gardner would intervene on behalf of The Mayerses. But "Suburbicon" is a gleefully bent film: Gardner is too caught up in his own dubious doings to care about his new neighbors and their threatened civil rights.

In a daring style of storytelling, Clooney makes no effort to connect the two storylines, keeping The Lodges apart from the Mayers family. Only their children - Tony Espinosa as Andy Mayers and the remarkable Noah Jupe as Nicky Lodge - have any meaningful, humane contact in the film.

Clooney handily guides his film through a collection of amusing Hitchcockian twists and turns, many jaw-droppingly inappropriate and unapologetic, and locates humor (of the jet-black variety) that the politically correct might find insensitive and probably just plain gross.

Insensitive?  Gross? For me, it's simply some much-needed sarcasm.

Jupe is placed regularly in unsettling situations - very incorrect - but the young actor is almost preternaturally game in a performance that defines the fractured message of the film. Damon, always flawless, bravely abandons himself in a role and performance unlikely to win him any awards but should. And Julianne Moore is simply a hoot as twin sisters.

As far as her role(s) in the film, I'll leave it at that.


There are invaluable contributions here by cinematographer Robert Elswit, editor Stephen Mirrione, costume designer Jenny Eagan, production designer James D. Bissell, set decorator Jan Pascale and particularly Alexandre Desplat, who has composed a diverse, wall-to-wall music score that, artfully and surprisingly, never seems the least bit intrusive.

From where I sit, Paramount has had a banner year with radical cinema, as evidence by Darren Aronofsky's "mother!" and now "Suburbicon," brash films branded as "audience unfriendly" (for me, not entirely a bad thing). And, much like "mother!," Clooney's film goes through something akin to a hysterical nervous breakdown as it speeds towards its conclusion. Coming up from Paramount is Alenxander Payne's "Downsizing" (also with Damon) and, despite the cheery trailer, I'm hopeful that it also has a dark side.

And that it's similarly inappropriate (there's that word again) and sarcastic - "qualities" that we desperately need more than ever now.
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~image~
 from top

~One of the posters for Paramount's "Suburbicon"

~ Matt Damon and Noah Jupe in a scene from the film
~ Damon having dinner after a particularly rough day
~Julianne Moore, Jape (back to camera), Damon and Jack Conley looking for "bad guys"
 ~photography: Paramount 2017©

6 comments:

Brian Lucas said...

Every review I've read of the film complains the use (or lack thereof) of the black family in the film. Anthony Lane in The New Yorker actually questioned if that was Clooney's intention, as if Clooney didn't bother to think his movie through. Your takes makes sense. Although it touches on black oppression, it is more concerned with white bigotry.

Shelley said...

A brave and bracing movie

Charlotte said...

I also appreciate that Clooney and company did not take the easy way out and made what I would call an "irregular" film. You sit there, wanting the two plots to come together, and the film doesn't budge even an inch. It remains true to its vision, which may not be pretty but which is really spot-on. Bravo!

Jane B. said...

I’m really looking forward to seeing it.

Mike Schlesinger said...

I agree that it's quite a remarkable film--much blacker than anything I've seen from a studio lately--but there are a couple of flaws in your argument.

First, the original Coen script was strictly about the Lodges. It was Clooney and Heslov who added the subplot about the Mayers. Though you are correct that they never connect in any meaningful way until the end, making it seem like a distraction--not unlike the way many comedy-team features came to a halt every few minutes for a song by the romantic leads.

Second, the negative reception by audiences is almost entirely due to the trailer, which misleadingly sells it as a FARGO-esque black comedy, instead of the nightmare it actually is.

But I do think it'll get a reassessment sooner or later, at least by critics.

BTW, Noah's last name is Jupe, not Jape.

joe baltake said...

Ooops! Thanks, Mike. Correction done. As mush as I deny it, I still need an editor. Hope my misspelling of Noah's name isn't some semi-conscious ageist thing. As far as the film being reassessed by the critics, I hope so but, given the relentless stream of releases these days, I doubt that if even the most dedicated critic will find the time to re-evaluate an older film - as least, not in our lifetime.