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Film Review: Suburbicon


At the Cinemark I remember the days of double-bills at the local drive-in. Buy one ticket, see two movies.

Or, in my case, go with my dad, the projectionist, to the Port Angeles Drive In and see them both for free. Sweet. I propose that Butte’s Silver Bow Drive-In, one of the 338 remaining outdoor movie theaters, book a double bill of “Mother” and “Suburbicon.”

These Paramount films deserve each other – and, with soft blankets, a fluffy pillow and plentiful popcorn, watching them from the back end of a pick-up truck might be sort of fun, actually. Both are serious well-intentioned films by respected directors which fly off into space like a moonshot whose GPS malfunctioned. “Mother” started out as a tale about a poet whose fans overrun his country home, but morphed into an ethereal allegory about God, Mother Earth, Cain, Abel and the destruction of the planet.

“Suburbicon” has its domestic cover story, too. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), a rather boring accountant, lives in a suburban neighborhood in 1959. When a black couple buys a home nearby, his racist neighbors begin plotting to drive away “the intruders.”

That tale morphs into a murder mystery and a racial allegory that will eventually send Gardner pedaling down a street at night on a tricycle. The plot ends with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – what else would we expect when we live in Allegoryville? Both films are convoluted allegories which spin off from domestic life into the cirrus clouds of symbolism.

Like “Mother” which sports a cast of Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence, “Suburbicon” has star power, too, from Matt Damon and Julianne Moore (in two roles). “Suburbicon” will find its following among those who like experimental cinema, and hunger for scripts that break the rules. I often like that, too, but I like my trips aboard hot air balloons to have at least a loose rope tying us to reality.

At the center of this surreal tale is a young boy who still goes out to play baseball with his friend even after witnessing one murder and being an accomplice-by-omission in another. The boy ends up being the thread of hope that emerges from this dark comedy originally scripted, some 30 years ago, by the Coen Brothers. Yes, that’s the same duo that gave us “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.” This script is an older one that director George Clooney has said he used as the starting point for a contemporary reflection on racism.

“‘Suburbicon’ was really written as a piece to talk about the idea that there’s a group of white Americans who are terrified that they’re losing their place in society and are blaming minorities for it,” Clooney told the Toronto Film Festival. He says he toned down the “goofy” parts that were reminiscent of “Fargo,” the Coen brothers’ classic. “Toning down” the delightfully eccentric Coen brothers may have been Clooney’s first mistake.

Suffice it to say the transformation didn’t work. Where’s Frances McDormand when we really need her? Paramount’s £25 million investment in “Suburbicon” produced a dismal £2.8 million at the box office – and it will go down from here.

One industry writer says the film may wobble the legs of the studio. For the record, Paramount also took the loss for “Mother,” which nearly made enough overseas to compensate for a dismal American showing. In some ways, these two box office disasters are encouraging, since it means major studies will take risk in the name of art, now and again.

That’s reassuring. If we want original cinema, we have to accept original flops along with the classics. I’d rather see daring experiments that failed than prequels and sequels ending in III or XXV.

Reaching for the stars sometimes means splashing down in Sequim.

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