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I am not a fan of George Clooney the director. As an actor, Clooney brings sophisticated charm, humor and strong dramatic chops to most every role, but his directorial efforts are largely stuffy and self-indulgent. Clooney packs his movies with A-list actors, but often stumbles with pacing and payoff. Good Night, and Good Luck. showed early promise, but subsequent films like Leatherheads and The Monuments Men sink under their own pretense when they should float. Clooney's latest film, Suburbicon, tanked at the box office and was ravaged by critics and audiences, but is actually more entertaining than his last handful of projects. This messy mix of black comedy, social and historical commentary, and whodunit thrills is not polished to the caliber of actors Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac, but Suburbicon at least entertains instead of eliciting yawns.
If this movie feels like that a Coen Brothers film, that is because it sort of is. Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the screenplay in 1986 after the success of Blood Simple but never shot it. Clooney picked it up some years later, and the project has unmistakable trappings of its writers. The trailers do their best to spoil the entire murder-mystery plot line, but there is much more going on here than a simple, unlawful killing. The film opens in a tidy 1959 suburban neighborhood as a black family, the Mayers (Leith Burke, Karimah Westbrook and Tony Espinsona, as dad, mom and son, respectively), moves into their new home. This attracts plenty of unwanted attention from racist neighbors, who eventually take to protesting outside the home, banging drums and yelling at all hours of the night. Across the back yard from the Mayers family lives Gardner Lodge (Matt), his paralyzed wife Rose (Moore), son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and Rose's sister Margaret (also Moore). Rose encourages Nicky to play baseball with the Mayers boy, which opens him to criticism and hate, too. Days later, two robbers break into the Lodge home, and Rose is killed after being tied up and forced to inhale chloroform, sparking an investigation into the motives behind the crime.
If anything, there is too much going on in the film, so its themes and separate storylines become muddled. There is the social commentary about the Mayers family moving into the all-white, model-home suburb, but this feels a bit sanitary, perhaps due to the screenplay's age. That neighborhood plays into the film's satirical elements, and, if nothing else, the production design is spot-on. Gardner starts to become frayed at work due to stress at home, and Margaret appears all too eager to step into the shoes of her late sister. The ultimate reveals in the domestic drama are not necessarily surprising, and the story proceeds in typical Coen fashion, dropping hints amid its unsavory supporting characters and discoveries by young Nicky. Damon, despite being the advertised lead character, is underutilized here, though he certainly figures into the black comedy. I liked Moore's work more, particularly the home-invasion scene where she is playing against herself. Jupe does a nice job playing a precocious, self-aware kid whose actions drive much of the narrative. Isaac is decent in his supporting role as insurance investigator Bud Cooper, who is skeptical about the life insurance claim on Rose.
I am not sure why this one got such nasty audience reviews. Perhaps the ten people who saw it all went on a bad day. It does have plenty of problems, but none completely rob it of entertainment value. The characters are barely sketches, particularly the antagonists. Damon's father figure is given little motivation for the way he relates to Rose, Margaret and Nicky, and the Mayers family is hardly three-dimensional, which undercuts what could have been a powerful parallel storyline. Suburbicon may have been more successful with a better director or if Clooney had focused solely on the murder mystery instead of trying to cram too many elements and themes into one narrative. The Coens simply handle this type of material better, particularly instilling mystery into lightly written antagonists. If nothing else, I was entertained by this movie's mishmash of ideas, and that is not something I can say about Clooney's previous few directing projects.
The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is fantastic and cinematic, thanks to the Arri Alexa-shot digital photography. The production design is all 1950s camp, but the image is crystal clear, with excellent fine-object detail, accurate skin tones and bold, perfectly saturated primary colors. Wide shots are crisp and clean, digital noise is minimal in nighttime scenes, and shadow details are abundant. I noticed no edge halos and only minimal aliasing as the camera panned across the backs of several neighborhood homes.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is immersive and nicely balanced, with excellent dialogue reproduction, solid score integration and a fair amount of sound pans and directional dialogue. There are some thriller and action elements, which make use of the surrounds, and ambient noise, like shouting protestors and office chatter, surround the viewer to provide a realistic experience. A Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is included, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release includes an UltraViolet HD digital copy and an iTunes digital copy. The disc comes in an eco-case that is wrapped in a slipcover. Extras include an Audio Commentary by Clooney and Producer Grant Heslov; Welcome to Suburbicon (29:50/HD), a reasonably lengthy making-of; The Usual Suspects: Casting (12:49/HD); and Scoring Suburbicon (7:54/HD).
I apparently enjoyed George Clooney's Suburbicon more than most, but certainly acknowledge its flaws. Shooting from a Coen Brothers' screenplay, Clooney weaves a messy but entertaining tale of murder, social commentary and satire that benefits from solid production design and A-list actors. The disc is solid, but I'm not sure this one has much replay value. Rent It.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.