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Awful, by George

(Last Updated On: October 31, 2017)

By: Matt Brunson, Creative Loafing

Left to right: Matt Damon as Gardner and Noah Jupe as Nicky in SUBURBICON, from Paramount Pictures and Black Bear Pictures.

The original script for Suburbicon was written by Joel and Ethan Coen back in 1986, shortly after the dynamic duo flashed their calling card in the form of their debut beauty, 1985’s Blood Simple. Shelving the script, the siblings instead moved forward with 1987’s brilliant Raising Arizona, although they later incorporated some of Suburbicon’s elements into their Oscar-winning screenplay for 1996’s Fargo.

Coen pal George Clooney later got hold of the script for Suburbicon and planned to turn it into a movie as far back as 2005. Instead, one thing led to another, and it’s only now that Suburbicon is hitting theaters, with direction by Clooney and a Coen script that has since been modified by Clooney and his frequent writing partner Grant Heslov. Given the ghastly result, perhaps the Coens should sue since it’s almost inconceivable that their original idea bore much resemblance to a debacle that unexpectedly has emerged as one of the year’s worst films.

Topical yet tone-deaf, Suburbicon initially appears as if it will focus on the tensions that emerge when a black family moves into a white middle-class neighborhood in 1959. With an unrepentant white supremacist soiling the White House and his dim-witted supporters spewing their hatred at various rallies and marches (oh, and on the Internet), a movie examining unbridled racism certainly couldn’t be timelier. But no, this is merely a side dish to the real plotline, which centers on the plight facing mild-mannered neighbor Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), their son Nicky (appealing Noah Jupe), and Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore). A home invasion by two seedy criminals (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) results in one death – this, in turn, leads to a cover-up, a visit from an insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac), and several more slayings.

The sequences involving the Lodges — that is to say, the majority of the movie — is pitched as a dark comedy, but since Clooney doesn’t share the Coens’ natural aptitude for satire, these scenes prove to be awfully heavy-handed and stridently overbearing. The Coens must share some of the blame, though, for creating such flat characters in the first place. (Then again, there was a reason the brothers tossed this aside back in ’86.)

The portions of the film focusing on the African-American family — Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) and their son Andy (Tony Espinosa) — are presented in far more dramatic fashion, wisely stripped of any comedic underpinnings. Yet witnessing the Mayers being harassed on a daily basis and seeing their car firebombed works in direct conflict to the broad comedy unfolding elsewhere in the film, and the only possible reaction is one of embarrassment. Clooney, of course, means well, but his point that the nice black family is being persecuted while no one pays any attention to the white scumbags next door couldn’t be more clumsy or obvious.

By repeatedly shunting the Mayers storyline to the back burner in what turns out to be a dismissive and even condescending manner, Suburbicon is no different than the countless other movies that believe — excuse the Casablanca paraphrase — the problems of three black people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy Caucasian world. It’s the same old cinematic song, even more off-key than usual.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a film of several stories and many moods.

It’s a biopic of author A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), best known as the creator of Winnie the Pooh. It’s a story of PTSD, as Milne suffers from flashbacks to the horrors he experienced while participating in World War I. It’s a coming-of-age tale, with Milne’s son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at age 8 and Alex Lawther at age 18), learning to cope with being a star in his own right (and against his will), as the kid whose childhood provided the template and inspiration for his father’s most popular works. It’s a piece about family dysfunction, as there are frequent fissures created between Milne, his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), and their young boy. It’s an inspirational study of how the creative process can be employed to soothe the soul and heal the psyche. It’s a horror story about the cult of celebrity, with an innocent life being subjected to the sort of media frenzy that’s still very much in effect today. And, for those who care to subscribe to this viewpoint, it’s a film about child abuse.

That’s an awful lot of weight for one movie to carry, but the strain really only becomes apparent during the latter passages. For the most part, director Simon Curtis and scripters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan do a smooth job of integrating the disparate elements to fashion a bittersweet yarn that largely centers on a co-opted childhood. The efforts to reclaim said adolescence would logically factor into any such narrative, yet it’s during the final stretch (basically, when Lawther takes over from Tilston in the role of Christopher Robin) that the picture becomes rushed, clipped and unsatisfying.

Goodbye Christopher Robin makes a valiant effort at emerging as more than just a traditional biopic. Ultimately, though, its lofty ambitions are a bit too much for the filmmakers to bear.

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