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.

 

The Girl on the Train (Taylor; 2016)

Rachel (Emily Blunt), the titular character in The Girl on the Train, rides everyday past the houses of Megan (Haley Bennett) and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and daydreams about the life of Megan and her husband while trying to avoid looking at the house of Anna and her husband.  We know all this from watching the opening scene of the movie, but just in case what we see in this opening scene isn’t enough to get this across to the audience, we also hear the voice of Rachel explaining exactly what it is she’s doing and every single feeling she’s having about doing it.  We then get to see scenes where people talk about their lives and feelings to their therapists, and to the police, and to their husbands, and their roommates, and voice-overs explaining exactly what we’re watching them do, in fact it’s about two thirds of the way through The Girl on the Train before we see that this movie is a thriller and a mystery and not just a movie about people explaining what we’re watching and exactly how they feel about that.

Even once we figure out what type of film we’re watching, we already have it all figured out.  For most of the running time I thought The Girl on the Train was just a very poorly written thriller, but after a certain event let me know that what I was watching was actually a mystery, I figured out at the exact same moment who the villain of the story was, because all the hamfisted exposition up to this point made it that obvious.  I have never read the novel The Girl on the Train, but I have to hope the writing in it was not this amateurish, as every single bit of writing in the film version ignores everything that can make dialogue exciting, exposition creative, and plotting intense.

While the writing is most certainly the most egregious element in The Girl on the Train, the acting is also an area of deficiency.  Emily Blunt does a decent job with her role considering what little she was given to work with, though even she has a tendency throughout much of the film to overact and give a hackneyed portrayal of Rachel, and Allison Janney makes the most of her little on screen time.  Every other actor in the film however, gives us an awkward, uninspired, and amateurish performance, whether that due to being unable to show any emotion at all or going so far over the top it’s clownish.

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We really are a loving, caring couple.  We’re just also really low key.

The cinematography in The Girl on the Train is proficient enough, but we still have the problem with lack of creativity.  Most of the time the camera is concerned with obscuring what exactly is going on so as to best create mystery in the worst possible way.  When it isn’t hiding which characters we are looking at or places they’re inhabiting, it’s making sure to catch all those pretty faces in the best lights and angles possible.  Whenever there is some trick pulled with our perspective, not only is it always a trick we’ve seen before, but it’s so telegraphed that it’s quite obvious the director wanted to make absolutely one hundred percent sure that we didn’t miss his moment of ingenuity.

The crux of all the myriad problems in The Girl on the Train really comes down to the fact that the creators of the film are trying to stretch out 15 minutes of actual story into an almost 2 hour run time, and very few of those involved were talented enough to do so even if this was a good idea.  There isn’t much story, so the script has to focus on character, the characters aren’t very deep, so they have to talk a lot, and since there isn’t much to talk about they drone on about themselves in the most angst ridden middle school way possible, if angst ridden middle schoolers were alcoholics and serial cheaters that is.

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Respect my angst!

Needless to say, The Girl on the Train is a film I recommend to very, very few.  There is a niche audience of self-loathing, but also man hating, women out there who will like it on some level as a form of fantasy and wish fulfillment, but I really can’t see that there would be many others who would enjoy this as anything other than an exercise in exactly how not to write a screenplay.  It tries for thrills, depth, import, and even pretentiousness and it manages to fail on every single level.  There are many better things you can do with 112 minutes without even trying.

Rating:  3.0 out of 10