For decades, George Clooney has made an acting career out of tapping into the classic Hollywood aesthetic that he naturally evokes. His Cary Grant-ish ambiance and charm is a rebuttal of sorts to the idea that “they don’t make them like they used to anymore.” Clooney often comes off like a throwback, a lost remnant that somehow exists in the modern day. As an actor, that nostalgic style has worked greatly for Clooney, but as a director, it’s been his Achilles’ heel. Instead of creating his own style, Clooney is content with cribbing from past eras and far more compelling directors to create watered down films not nearly as compelling as their influences.
This lack of an individual style and disinterest in telling unique stories is abundantly clear in Clooney’s sixth directorial effort, Suburbicon. Clooney and frequent co-writer Grant Heslov took a 30-year-old unproduced screenplay from the Coen brothers and adapted it into a black comedy lacking the deft talent or melding of themes that make up their best films. With Clooney and Heslov’s touch, there’s no charm, no smart ideas, and no understanding of how the various pieces in their film fit together.
Suburbicon attempts to tell two separate stories, neither of which work on their own and never come together in a way that warrants the necessity of telling both in the same film. The entirely white community of Suburbicon is shaken when a black family – William (Leith M. Burke) and Daisy Meyers (Karimah Westbrook), along with their son Andy (Tony Espinosa) – move into their idyllic neighborhood. Their furious neighbors camp out on the Meyers’ lawn at night and intimidate them at every chance.
On the other side of the Meyers’ family newly-placed fence is the Lodge family, led by Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). One evening, their house is broken into and the family is tied up and chloroformed. Unfortunately, Rose dies from a chloroform overdose, with her sister Margaret (also played by Moore) moving in with the family to help transition from their loss. Nicky believes there to be more than meets the eye with the incident, and considers that maybe his father and aunt intentionally planned the death of his mother.
Clooney’s idea by telling these two stories together apparently exists to show the irony of a white family potentially getting away with murder, while a black family is terrorized for doing nothing at all. The problem with both scenarios are numerous, starting with the lack of character within the Meyers’ family. William is never given a single line, and the entire family is symbolic rather than human. They exist for the sole purpose of showing the stupidity of racism, yet by not building these characters in any way, they are clearly a blunt point to be made from their very appearance.
With the Lodge family, it’s obvious why the Coens left this script on the shelf, instead deciding to refine these ideas into Fargo. Out of the Coens’ hands, Clooney and Heslov try to tell a dark comedy without any humor, with boring characters and without the writing or directing prowess it takes to make such despicable people worth spending time with. The only saving grace of Suburbicon is Oscar Isaac as an insurance adjuster who sees right through Gardner Lodge’s plans and brings a much needed amount of joy to this revelation.
Clooney knows the eras and the classic types of stories he wants to tell, but can never find the right tone, whether it’s in a World War II caper (The Monuments Men), a lighthearted 1920s football comedy (Leatherheads), and especially not in the late 50s macabre rural humor of Suburbicon. As an homage to classic Hollywood, Clooney the actor knows how to show his adoration for the past. But as a director, his nostalgia for the past and failed attempts to recreate the past and mimic better filmmakers has become increasingly embarrassing.