Suburbicon (Clooney; 2017)

Suburbicon is going to be a difficult film to review without giving spoilers largely because the marketing campaign does such an excellent job at not giving away anything about the true nature of the film.  As usual, I will do my best to not give away any major plot points in the movie, but to even discuss the pros and cons will give away elements of the movie that are not obvious at all from the trailers,  So, I will say here to start that I do not recommend the film for prime time theater viewing, but it does have a message told in a unique if overly heavy-handed and over-familiar way (yes, I realize unique and over-familiar are contradictory, but I stick by that description) which makes the movie worth catching eventually on streaming or now at a matinee.

The year in which Suburbicon takes place is never explicitly mentioned, but it during a period in the United States in which the middle class was prosperous, houses in close-knit communities with greener than green lawns and white picket fences were the fashion, and ending segregation was one of the nation’s hot-button issues.  The film opens with a short faux advertising film reel letting us know why we should move to the community of Suburbicon followed by a bit showing a mailman making his rounds through the town which only needs Doris Day and a musical number with neighbors dancing with push mowers to make it complete,   We learn that new neighbors have moved into Suburbicon, and this has everyone excited and curious, but when the mailman goes to their house and discovers the African American woman answering the front door (Karimah Westbrook) is not an indentured servant, but is in fact the new neighbor Mrs. Mayers, Suburbicon’s attitude immediately changes.  The film’s plot really gets underway when Rose (Julianne Moore who also plays Rose’s identical twin sister Margaret) suggests to her son Nicky (Noah Jupe) that he invite the new neighbor Noah Mayer to go play baseball with him.  Despite Nicky’s protestations, he does befriend his new African American neighbor, but the very next day two men appear in the middle of the night to attack Nicky, Rose, Margaret, and Gardner (Matt Damon) in their home.

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Suburbicon is the latest directorial effort from George Clooney, who has previously given us a handful of mediocre to pretty good films, my favorites being Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck, when working behind the camera.  Clooney has worked a lot with the Coen Brothers over the years, and you can see their inspiration in his directing, so I assumed when I was seeing such strong Coen Brothers’ influences in Suburbicon that it was just Clooney’s style.  While that may be part of the reason this seemed so much like one of their films, the real reason I discovered upon seeing the closing credits was that Joel and Ethan Coen share writing credits along with Clooney himself and Grant Heslov.  Comparing a film to the Coen’s films is nearly always a compliment, but here it is really just the trappings of a Coen film without the extra spark of wry eccentricity that makes their films so engaging.

I’m sure Clooney himself can be largely blamed for that lack of spark, but I think the biggest reason comes from the story itself.  The next sentence is such a spoiler I am going to make it only readable by highlighting it, but it is the number one problem with the film so it has to be mentioned.  The real problem with Suburbicon is that we’ve seen this movie before, but the first time it was called Fargo and it took place in North Dakota and Minnesota rather than in Pleasantville and it didn’t attempt social commentary via an awkward, honestly unneeded, parallel storyline.  This was also my major problem with Star Wars: The Force Awakens but in this case not only is the story being retread, it’s also being watered down and diffused.

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The cast of Suburbicon gives us some good work for the most part, though Noah Jupe comes across very one-note especially after seeing some excellent child performances this year from so many people that I’m wondering if actors under eighteen need to have their own category at the Academy Awards.  Julianne Moore and Matt Damon have the lion’s share of screen time, and while neither gives a particularly nuanced performance, they do obviously have fun with their roles and allow their natural goofball charisma to grab our attention.  Oscar Isaac has a small supporting role in the film, and he manages to steal the show every single time he makes an appearance making me wonder why he hasn’t gotten more lead roles as aside from his turn as Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse he has never given us a bad performance.

The visuals of Suburbicon are excellently put together with camera work which borders on art and charming art direction.  But perhaps best of all visually is the snappy editing style from Stephen Mirrione (Birdman, The Revenant, and many others), and while this effort won’t win him another Oscar, it is still worthy of what we’ve come to expect from him.

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Final verdict:  Suburbicon could have been a great film if its plot hadn’t been recycled, but it has so it isn’t.  Visually, there is a lot to like even if none of ever reaches the level of stunning, and the actors obviously have fun with Oscar Isaac really going above and beyond.  Heck, even the writing could have been something special as it does tackle a message so sorely needed in Trump’s America, but that message is so clumsily presented in a story we’ve already seen that it comes across as insulting rather than inspired.  While Suburbicon was directed by Clooney, it’s really a Coen Brothers’ film through and through, and it’s one closer to the Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers end of the Coen scale than Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

 

Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen; 2016)

Conflict is the primary force which underlies all drama.  There is a reason we watch what we do, whether that be romance, action, or thriller, and not films about normal families going to work or eating dinner while discussing their day.  Hail, Caesar!, however, is a film by the Coen Brothers, and if there is anything that can be said about the Coens, it’s that they love playing around with convention, and this time that convention is skirting around having conflict as the factor that engages us to watch a movie.

 

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Is this a good time to grab the refill on my popcorn?

Josh Brolin stars in Hail, Caesar! as Eddie Mannix, studio fixer for Capitol Pictures.  The movie follows a few days at work for Mannix starting with the day that movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) disappears from the set of Hail, Caesar!, one of the many films being shot on the Capitol Pictures lot.  Things get more complicated for Mannix as more stars, all played by real life Hollywood elite, have issues he has to deal with and a pair of twin sister reporters, both played by Tilda Swinton, start poking around the set, but when you get right down to it, nothing in the film isn’t easily fixed with little more than a conversation and a figurative wave of the hand.

What Hail, Caesar! really is, is an homage to late ’40’s/early ’50’s Hollywood done Coen Brothers style.  The real joy to be had here doesn’t lie in the plot, but in the sideshows.  There are multiple movies within a movie going on here, this is where we get to see the majority of the film’s stars, and each glimpse into them we get allows the Coen Btothers to give their own take on a 50s version of that genre, some of which haven’t been done since the 50s, in their own inimitable style.

As is standard for the Coens, there is more going on here than meets the eye.  This is one of their lighter, fluffier films, but they still have quite a bit to say about the culture of Hollywood and the paradoxical importance of escapism, and of course there are the wonderful, quirky Coen visuals and characterizations on display here that are a joy to experience even in their least of efforts.

Hail, Caesar! does boast quite the list of Hollywood A-listers.  In addition to those mentioned earlier, we also have Ralph Feinnes, Scarlett Johannson, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, and Channing Tatum all making appearances.  But, that’s all they really are, are appearances.  The most scenes any of these actors appear in is a whopping two, and you get to see nearly the entire performance of one of these stars, I won’t give away which, in the movie’s trailer.  Still, they do all manage to steal the scene they are in, which I think is exactly the point to having them appear, and Channing Tatum’s bit in particular was the highlight of the film.
The biggest surprise of Hail, Caesar! was the performance of newcomer, well not total newcomer, he’s been in a few small films, Alden Ehreinreich as Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy and real country boy forced into a role as a depressed dilettante.  He’s hilarious, sympathetic, and, I hope it’s not too strange for me to say about another man, absolutely adorable in his role.  He fits very well into the Coen Brothers niche and I truly can’t wait to see more from him in the future.

If you are neither a fan of 50s cinema nor of the Coen’s filmography, you have absolutely no reason to check out Hail, Caesar!, there simply will be nothing of interest to you here.  However, if either of those things catches your fancy there’s quite a bit to enjoy here, even if it’s really more about the side dishes than the main course.  It’s a lesser Coen film, but it’s still most definitely all Coen.

Rating:  6.4 out of 10

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Suck it, Ariel.