Welcome to Both Sides Now, a (probably quite short) series in which the author discusses and reviews feature films he participated in the making of.
Dir. George Clooney
Premiered at Venice September 4, 2017
The trouble started when I saw that first trailer, because what was being advertised wasn’t my movie. It couldn’t be my movie. Clooney said he was making a big, important statement. This was a fairly run-of-the-mill Coen picture. Did he lie to us? Was this some kind of trick? This is a lingering terror for actors, and not without reason. At the same time, it was George Clooney, and I wasn’t exactly expecting him to be making porn or Russian propaganda, so the trailer made me curious as to how my sequence would ever fit in with this rather jovially dark comedy.
Then I found out the Joel and Ethan Coen script was a latent draft from 1988. Then the reviews started coming out of Toronto, mostly bad. And then it went wide, and the reviews got worse. My heart sank. Then I read the reviews: Clooney was serving two masters, they said. Clooney was being racially insensitive in trying to speak out against racism, they said.
And then I actually got a little giddy, because I know pretentious middlebrow disaster better than most married couples know each other. I got to do both: the exact kind of movie that I love, and the exact kind of movie I love to hate: The Affair of the Necklace, Lions for Lambs, Suburbicon.
It’s not actually that bad, though.
Most of the movie takes place from the point of view of young Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe). The story is boilerplate Coen, but feels a lot fresher, almost Roald Dahl-like, when viewed through the horrified eyes of a child. One night, Nicky is awakened by his father Gardner (Matt Damon) who is being robbed at gunpoint by two home invaders (Glenn Fleshler and Michael D. Cohen). The family is chloroformed, and Nicky’s newly-paraplegic mother (Julianne Moore) appears to die from an overdose.
But what happened that night quickly starts to fall apart. Dad starts shacking up with mom’s twin sister (Julianne Moore), and Nicky watches helplessly the two refuse to identify the culprits in a police lineup. They start looking for military schools to hide him away, and things escalate from there with results that should be predictable to Coen afficionados, but still manage to surprise, or at least shock.
So you may be wondering what the fuck any of that has to do with what I worked on, and the connection is tenuous: across the fence from the Lodges, the first black family moves into town, earning scorn and ultimately violent retribution from citizens who claim to be fine with black people moving in, but only “when they’re ready.” And of course, after things get taken to a terrifying extreme, everybody pretends that it wasn’t them. Ultimately, the neighbors are so preoccupied with the imagined threat of the Myers family that they never notice the mounting body count a block away. Strangely enough, this subplot is fully set up before the main plot.
There’s some speculation among critics that Clooney and co-re-writer Grant Heslov invented the race subplot out of whole cloth, but that doesn’t seem right: Nicky’s burgeoning friendship with new pal Andy (Tony Espinosa) is a much-needed outlet for a character who, distanced from his dopey but loving uncle (Gary Basaraba), has no one else to turn to, and just having that and element in the film feels refreshingly honest. But that’s as far as I’m willing to go; the thematic and tonal whiplash is insane. The story as written wasn’t enough to sustain a decently-paced first or second act (and thanks to Alexandre Desplat’s incessant score, it still isn’t), so Clooney and Heslov saw an opportunity to score some points, blew the race angle up without ever expanding the Myers’ characters, and it backfired.
I didn’t actually hate Suburbicon as much as did most other critics, who I found unnecessarily harsh due to high expectations, the aggravated racial politics of Trump’s America, and some of the more tangential fallout from the Weinstein scandal. Had it not also been a massive flop, sending an already teetering Paramount even closer to bankruptcy, I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie’s reputation softened with time. But that’s relative: I didn’t hate it as much. It’s not awful, just mediocre and ill-considered, and I left the theater just as frustrated with it as the critics were. At least it could have been good. And the first step would be to cut out every shot with me in it.
Sam Aronow is an actor, filmmaker, and writer living in Israel. You can find most of his reviews on the film history blog MovieYears.