Suburbicontext, Please

Are you in the mood for a romance/ fraud/ comedy/ murder/ suspense? I wasn’t either. The only time a movie as confused as Suburbicon works is around Halloween when we’re expecting the strange and unusual. It’s one thing to be in the mood for a certain kind of movie and another to be in the mood for all kinds of movies at the same time. If this happens to be you, then Suburbicon is the community playground crime scene you’ve been waiting for. Everything from the monkey bars to the bumpy slide is vying for attention in this melted sand castle of an identity crisis. That said, if Matt Damon can play a desperate but upbeat astronaut in The Martian “comedy” then he can certainly play a gloomy but hopeful average dad in the Suburbicon “daylight thriller”.

The age of raising a family in the city has passed. These days you’re not classy unless you live in the suburbs under a colourful roof away from the traffic, the crime, and the racial minorities. Suburbicon is one such golden age paradise. This quiet neighbourhood of housewives and white businessmen makes every day right as rain – until a black family moves in down the street. But forget about them; our main story is with the Lodge family. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is the typical adult male with a home, a wife, a son, and a sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore), who visits from time to time. The Lodges mind their own business but, regardless, they are still the target of a random break-in that results in the family tied up, chloroformed, and — in the case of Gardner’s wife — dead. Gardner’s son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), is positive he could pick the thugs out of a lineup, but his father and his aunt Margaret won’t give him the chance. Even odder, when Nicky is sure he recognizes the men, Gardner and Margaret pass them by. But forget about what Nicky thinks. Suburbicon‘s other main story is the growing mob presence in this quiet neighbourhood. Or is it? Maybe the story is actually about insurance fraud. It’s most definitely one of the four; but is Suburbicon about racial injustice, family tragedy, mob revenge, or insurance premiums?

Why not all four stories at the same time? When we’ve had enough of Gardner’s tough parenting, Suburbicon moves to the angry crowd building in front of the new family’s house. Or when the insurance investigator shows up at the door, the focus turns to mobsters taking care of “liabilities”. For a story about the suburbs this movie is unsettlingly all over the map.

The only stable pawn is Nicky. Bless that boy. Most characters are too trusting or creepily overprotective, but Nicky is silent Nicky. He’s the boy who enjoys baseball, tin can phones, and looking sullen. Nicky knows something’s rancid in the neighbourhood and he takes precautions, as every 10-year-old would do. While the rest of the cast acts on whims and fancies, seasoning coffee with poison, Nicky stands way back and watches the unattended campfire spark on a dry, hot day.

There’s something consistently weird about the adults in Suburbicon. They’re either tricky or slow, executing half-baked plans and reciting scripts to cover their tracks. Some, it’s obvious, are just a little too “city” for the suburbs. The only character that makes it work is big city Bud (Oscar Isaac), the insurance investigator. Bud is pushy, sharp, but also polite, which throws Margaret off balance like Barbie in a stiff breeze. It’s just too bad Bud’s only around for ten minutes of screen time.

Other than the idea that everyone living in the suburbs is a polite, screen-door-swinging neighbour who will turn off your car lights when you forget, the neighbourhood is just a setting. Suburbicon, really, could take place anywhere. The space and the time only make sense for the plot points involving the new, racially diverse neighbours. But this is just a small sliver compared to everything else that unfolds. This exact story could take place in 1965 Houston, or 2017 Barrie, Ontario and the tone would be the same. I firmly believe that setting the movie in the suburbs was an elaborate excuse to get Matt Damon to wear those glasses.

Suburbicon misses the mark like a drunk throwing darts at a swarm of bees. There’s a lot flying at us but nothing really sticks the landing. I enjoyed Nicky’s perspective the best because it was the least in need of a life coach and the most in need of simple therapy. Gardner and Margaret have a pit full of issues that require their undivided attention, but all they do is dig deeper holes. Suburbicon is definitely not a movie I would watch again but I’m still confused as to whether I liked it or not. It’s funny but in a sadistic, thrilling, romantic in-laws kind of way. Suburbicon is a socially confused 5/10.

Cup of coffee?