My rich sister Ann has regularly informed that "It's always about the money, especially if they say it's not about the money." Whether she influenced the deservedly famous Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, or they figured out the maxim themselves, they have made a successful film career of exploring and dramatizing it.
"Suburbicon," their latest bit of cynicism about how the American dream is perennially misrepresented as a free-for-all grab of wealth and not the pursuit of human rights and freedom the Founders envisioned, robustly continues the muckrake.
Here, in a rare departure of form, though co-writing and producing, they've chosen George Clooney to direct what nonetheless bears their unique signature. While I've dubbed the crime story "Fargo Light," it's far from their best effort. However, possessing about 30 percent less violence and dastardly motivations than its forebear, there's still plenty of that Coen Brothers grisliness — a stylized mode that dwells somewhere between black comedy and eccentric chutzpah. The assault on sacred cows and hypocrisy continues.
Please know that since I'm terrible at figuring out mysteries, I'm easily over-impressed. How do detective novel writers do it? Do they start from the end and work backwards? So don't go by my say-so if figuring out how the criminal mind plots its schemes is your forte. But be apprised that things aren't what they initially appear to be in the Lodge home, where corporate executive Gardner Lodge lives in supposed suburban bliss with his wife, sister-in-law and adolescent son.
You'll wonder why wife Rose is in a wheelchair. And isn't that Julianne Moore playing both Rose and her apparently sound sister, Margaret? Yet before we can ask any more questions, the weirdness is set in motion. Gardner, played by Matt Damon, enters the living room and informs that two men have invaded their home and have assured that if all cooperate, they won't get hurt.
The thugs chloroform the family. The rest, as they say, is for me to know and you to find out, if you can. A clue: In classical Coen style, amateurs take crime into their own hands.
It is at this juncture, when the half-explained, bizarre goings-on begin to puzzle, that I recalled how Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson summarized the atrocities that took place in "Fargo" (1996). In pitying disbelief of what she's uncovered, she says: "And what for? For a little bit of money? There's more to life than a little bit of money, you know. Don'tcha know that?"
Mulling that, and taking the artistic leap that there is a ready metaphor in almost everything the Coens pen, I thought about the financial incentive that doubtlessly prompted recently indicted millionaires to sell our country down the river. Yep, the heck with democracy. Égalité? That's for suckers. All for a little bit of money. But while that's just my little political conceit, the frères are much more obvious in the sociological subplot that rides in tandem with the mayhem.
Set just before the civil rights enlightenment of the 1960s, when beautifully two-toned, high-finned cars exemplified postwar ebullience and belied the truly important stuff of humanity, racism rears its ugly head.
The Mayers, an African-American family, has just moved next door. Little Nicky, superbly played by Noah Jupe, strikes up a baseball friendship with Andy, the new kid. But the presumed grownups of Suburbicon don't feel quite so friendly. Counterpoising the skullduggery devastating the Lodges, a 24/7 mob begins its hate vigil outside the Mayers' home.
Of course we know where the Coens via Clooney are going with this. The 1950s, now the historical punching bag of progressives for its missed opportunities and financial idolatry, represents for reactionaries that idealized time when America was great. Never mind that it was practically 100 years since the 13th Amendment was enacted and segregation was still tacitly the law of the land. Let's just hope that the next time a foreign power backs a candidate it isn't someone infatuated with the Great Depression or the 1918 flu pandemic.
But while the cracked mirror these highly prized filmmakers hold up is a splendidly satirical look at the fear that too often overrides that innate morality in us just screaming to break out and do what's right, those discomforted by social introspection needn't feel abandoned. There's ghastliness by the bushel, a thumping, neo-Hitchcockian score, some really aberrant ne'er-do-wells to disgust you and, leading up to a requisite amount of carnage which might assuage the somewhat bloodthirsty viewer, a veritable panoply of irreconcilably bad behavior.
All this said, the Coens are an acquired taste. And despite its vital message, this will be catalogued as one of their lesser works. While ardent devotees will want to set their filmic GPS for "Suburbicon," the less adventurous may wish to wait until it's on TV or skip the trip altogether.
"Suburbicon," rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by George Clooney and stars Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Noah Jupe. Running time: 104 minutes
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