Venice Review: George Clooney's Satire Suburbicon Strikes at America's Dark Heart
There was roaring applause for the new George Clooney movie at its first Venice Film Festival press screening Saturday morning, rumbling up before the credits even started rolling. Thatâs not news: Clooney is practically the patron saint of the Italian festival thatâs sliding into the sea. Heâs here most years, grinning and gladhanding and giving off alluring Nespresso fumes, and even one year when he wasnât, he graced the city with the celebrity wedding to end âem all. At the festival press conference for Suburbicon, one enraptured Italian â" male or female, equally likely â" will inevitably stand and ask âMaestro Clooneyâ to marry them anyway.
Which is not to say the clapping had nothing to do with the film itself, a glibly mordant comic noir* pastiche directed with the Cloonâs signature touch of s mooth, worsted-wool assurance. Itâs quick, itâs often funny, it looks good. Everyone with a beating heart likes Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, and their game, ghoulish turns here give us no reason to stop doing so. But ovations are not obligatory at press screenings, and Iâm not sure Suburbicon would have met with quite such an effusive one if any other moniker followed the âdirected byâ credit at the final cut to blackâ"not even those of co-writers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose names and blood-sticky fingerprints are all over the filmâs whiplashing screenplay.
Why didnât they keep it for themselves, you wonder? Might this not be one of their brightest brainchildren? I laughed in many of the places where Suburbicon wants us to laugh, yet something feels ill-balanced from the get-go â" like a carelessly mixed gin and tonic that you drink anyway, wincing at the bitter follow-through. This is suburban satire, taking comfortable aim at the aspirational values and regressive prejudices of 1950s middle America, that doesnât land in quite the right yard.
It starts sparkily enough, with a cheery promo for the eponymous post-war housing development of your prefabricated dreams. Come to Suburbicon! It has its own mall and Nazarene church! A booming voiceover worthy of Troy McClure assures us that itâs âa melting pot of diversity,â welcoming white people from New York, Ohio, even Mississippi! Ha, we chuckle, Clooney none-too-subtly gets it â" and so we settle in for a notionally topical skewering of Americaâs screwed-up racial politics, but safely bracketed in a high-camp period mockery of midcentury conservatism. Can you believe people used to decorate their homes so tackily? Can you believe people used to bake custards for new neighbours? Can you believe people used to be so openly raciâ" well, wait, hold up.
Following this wink -wink prologue, Suburbicon turns so grimly, genuinely terrifying itâs hard to believe it can ever recover into comedy. A nice African-American family, the Meyerses, has moved into Suburbicon and, 1959 being what it was, the other residents arenât happy about it. As ugly unrest spreads through the community, the new arrivalsâ neighbors, the Lodges, make a gesture to prove their tolerance: young Nicky (Noah Jupe) is dispatched to invite the black familyâs son to play ball. The move does not go unnoticed by the community, and that night, violent goons invade the Lodgesâ house, tormenting the family and killing Nickyâs disabled mother Rose (Moore).
Clooney conducts this first act with more panicked, pale-knuckled unease than anything else heâs ever directed; Glenn Fleshler, his gaze milky-eyed and unyielding, is pure flammable nightmare fuel as the chief aggressor. Briefly, we wonder how the goofy marketing can have misled us so, for a film so nervily mired in social politics.
But no, itâs this stomach-jabbing shot of domestic horror that wrongfoots us, as the narrative instead blithely traipses off into the lurid, less political fallout of Roseâs death. While Nicky, his milquetoast dad Gardner (Damon) and his almost improperly stoic aunt Maggie (Moore, again) make to continue as if nothing ever happened, fate has a whole lot more incident in mind. It should come as no surprise that a bit of Fargo self-referencing is on the Coensâ agenda, or that Double Indemnity is on the mood board from the moment Mooreâs second incarnationâ"oh, would that more movies could boast multiple Julianne Moore incarnationsâ"heads to the beauty parlor for the platinum treatment.
For many, this lickety-split left turn into genre backroads will be a relief. Itâs bloodier than any pulp fiction from the era it at once ridicules and nostalgically emulates, but even the red stuff has a cartoonish, just-a-j oke lightness of hue. Besides, whatâs not cute about a flustered Matt Damon pedalling for his life on a kid-size BMX, or Moore doing her best hybrid Betty Crocker femme fatale, or a mustachioed Oscar Isaac cracking snide as the sexiest insurance investigator you ever did see? Even when Clooneyâs broader-brush direction gets in the way, Suburbicon gives us Coens-y details and verbal peculiarities to relish: repeated, awestruck ruminations on Aruba (âItâs a protectorate... with couples golf!â) or the simple, unimprovable character naming of Gardner Lodge. (Given my own byline, I give this credit reluctantly.)
Yet that early sticking point in Suburbicon never comes unstuck: the use of white supremacist threat as a mere red herring, and the ongoing persecution of a black family as an ongoing sideshow to wackier goings-on elsewhere. While household matters for the Lodges get ever messier, the community stand against the Meyerses incrementally es calates into full-blown war: baying white hordes massed outside the black folksâ stucco matchbox house, screaming murder, throwing rocks, starting fires. Itâs a sick-making spectacle that Clooney depicts vividly, yet who are the blameless targets shuddering inside? Well, they get a handful of lines between them. No member of the family emerges as a character in their own right; the film takes their plight seriously without ever giving it its full attention.
Suburbicon is by no means an illiberal or unamusing film, and it has to be said that timing is not on Clooneyâs side. When it was jauntily dreamed up however long ago, how could anyone involved have known that a grotesque subplot from a heightened period piece would bear a discomfiting resemblance to the real-life America of Charlottesville, 2017? Clooneyâs narrow satire comes at a fractious time when none of its quote marks can be taken for granted, though even in a safer climate, the film could stand to c heck its own tilted perspective. In Venice, it plays. In America, I wonder if the applause will be quite so eager.Full ScreenPhotos:1/16The Best Looks from the 2017 Venice Film Festival