See It Instead: Suburbicon.
We head to the ‘burbs to see what lurks behind the picket fences inspired by George Clooney’s latest, Suburbicon.
There is something about suburbia that makes it catnip for directors. The all-American facade that gave cover to a generation of affluent white folks fleeing the terrors of the city (read: the poor and minorities) is ripe for satire and critique. Suburbicon is just the latest of these films that looks to roll up the perfectly manicured sod and look for what is squirming underneath. We’ve already looked at one film, Parents, which posited that what was lurking behind the formica counters was gruesome cannibals. Today we look at three other films that posit that something is rotten in the state of suburbia.
The Lodge family is newly arrived in Suburbicon, an idyllic planned community away from the troubles of city life. Unfortunately, some of that trouble involves the mafia, who are putting the squeeze on family scion Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon.) When the intimidation turns to murder and the attempted kidnapping of his son, Gardner fights back.
Featuring an embarrassment of riches in the casting department (Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, and Matt Damon) and a notable director in George Clooney (Good Night, Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) this film looks like a mega-project. Indeed, it was a long neglected brain-child of the Coen brothers before passing to Clooney. While I have high hopes for it, I’m also wise enough to hedge my bets by lining up some great movies to see instead.
The Serious Pick: Falling Down (1993).
William Foster (Michael Douglas) is having a bad day. A normal office drone, he finds himself let go from his defense department job and on the receiving end of a restraining order by his ex-wife on the day of his daughter’s birthday. Determined to see his little girl and get his due, he sets out through the city of LA during rush hour, intending to make it to the suburbs by evening. Things go very very wrong as every city nuisance becomes a deadly confrontation for a man teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown.
Falling Down is probably the best film Joel Schumacher ever made. Michael Douglas is the embodiment of Joe Everyman’s seething rage at the indignities of modern life. You have sympathy for him while recoiling in horror at every brutal over-reaction he has to being tripped up, ignored, or passed over. Thanks to excellent cinematography, you get a living, breathing city that seems to casually thwart Foster at each turn. While there is sheer glee to be had watching a man violently shredding the social contract that keeps him a meek slave, there is also a healthy dose of critique and commentary about life that makes multiple viewings rewarding.
The Lighthearted Pick: The ‘Burbs (1989)
Ray (Tom Hanks) is a suburbanite with too much time on his hands. Forced to take vacation time at home, he becomes eerily fixated on his new neighbors. Despite the urging of his long-suffering wife (Carrie Fisher), Ray winds up convinced that the folks next door are serial killers, and that they’ve started their culling of the neighborhood with the little old man on the corner. Aided by a bumbling best friend, Ray decides to investigate. It does not go well.
Younger audiences may not be aware that Tom Hanks was once the go-to guy for snarky comedy. Big, Turner and Hooch, and Dragnet were comedy classics. Hell, even Joe Versus the Volcano was a weird by fun time. While The ‘Burbs isn’t quite up to those standards, it is a good time that manages to also be a viable thriller. Director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Sunset Boulevard) knows his way around dark comedy and social satire. In fact, The ‘Burbs works much better as a thriller than a comedy. Dante gives you a sardonic look behind the scenes of petty suburban intrigue and the perennial human desire to believe the worst about our fellow men.
The Unconventional Pick: The Swimmer (1968)
Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) is a fit and handsome suburban resident out for a swim at his neighbor’s pool party. Noticing that all of the houses have pools that roughly line up a path to his house, he decides to hop the fences and swim his way home. Each yard he winds up in brings with it an old acquaintance – some friends, some enemies, and some past lovers. Ned’s account of his life and times seem to differ from those around him, and you get the sneaking suspicion that there’s something rotten festering underneath the all-American veneer.
The Swimmer is a surrealist look at Americana based on an excellent short story by John Cheever. Burt Lancaster makes the role his own, even going so far as to give the director the ax and put up ten thousand dollars of his own money to do re-shoots. For once, a difficult lead actor was right. Ned comes off as constantly at right angles to reality. He’s charming and genial, inviting you to believe him despite the constant push back from others. As his nearly sociopathic shell starts to implode, you get a scathing critique of upper-middle class life in the homogeneous enclaves of the suburbs.
This movie was panned at launch but has built a cult following over the many years. An excellent remastering is available that really shows off the disquieting tone and visuals of the original. I highly recommend this oft-forgotten film.