SUBURBICON: When Someone Other Than the Coen Brothers Makes a Coen Brothers Movie

Tony Kushner once likened a complex play to a lasagna. Much like an Italian-minded chef, a writer should try to stuff as many different ingredients as possible into their constructions to expansively deepen the flavor, yet not too many as to make the overall structure tumble under its own excessive weight – a tenuous balancing act that requires precise hands to create such complicated concoctions.

The Coen Brothers are some of the most expert lasagna-crafters in Hollywood; they somehow endlessly layer their work without forsaking its comprehensible integrity.

Suburbicon stands as a testament to what happens when inferior chefs try to cook up a Coens lasagna. Even though George Clooney is a familiar face in the brothers’ universe, here he makes for an ill-equipped director to bring this confoundingly confused tale to the screen.

As usual, a story tends to be obscured by the input of more than two screenwriters; there’s four here: the Coens plus Clooney and his longtime collaborator Grant Heslov. Even though intriguing strands are still detectable of their gleaned-intention to explore the paradox between suburban Americana’s pretty face and ugly underbelly, Suburbicon is a classic example of, well, too many cooks in the kitchen. There are also just too many different plots for one movie to hold; the beginning sets up the audience to expect a movie about the 1950’s superficial tolerance yet deep-seated racism, yet then it nonsensically veers into a detective-family dark dramedy.

Much of the blame falls on Clooney. A more skillful director could’ve navigated such scatterbrained maneuvering without losing the audience, simultaneously pulling us into the world while also justifying its borderline-ludicrous twists and turns. The script is clearly all-over-the-place, but so too are most of the Coens’ output. Yet they’re capable of turning all of the disparate elements in their brains into distinctly delicious recipes, ones whose components can be savored on so many different levels. They always know and are in command of the story they’re ultimately trying to tell, and part of the fun of watching their movies lies in being taken along for the ride, which can only be felt if we have confidence in whose curating this meal from course to course.

A key factor is the fact that they bring worlds to life that feel both separate from our own yet invitingly understandable. Surprises are always in store, but they strike vivid tones whose consistency acts as a sort of anchor to ground the characters’ otherworldly antics. Clooney achieves no such success with Suburbicon; the freaking trailer boasts the sort of distinguishable vibe that the movie sorely lacks. Whereas the Coens concoct heightened realities that prove perfect homes for their brand of darkly sardonic humor, Clooney oscillates between different strokes of blandness. Without a deft overseer to make sense of the madness, Suburbicon becomes an overstuffed yet underfilling dish, with even its tastiest ingredients getting lost amidst the overwhelming muck.

Only one person here seems to be blessed with the touch of the Coens: Oscar Isaac, who’s in the movie that Suburbicon should’ve been. Yet he’s of course allotted scant screen time, yet another indicator that Clooney and Co. never figured out what they had on their hands, as is the all-too-apparent shoddy editing (Josh Brolin was cut out entirely!). I was honestly more intrigued by what the movie could’ve been than what it actually is.

As a result, the lasagna that is Suburbicon ends up strewn over the plate in a mess of mush.

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