Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Suburban cliches, yes, but compelling

As if suburban life hasn’t been ridiculed enough over the decades by all manner of sociologists, novelists, playwrights and filmmakers, leave it to one of Hollywood’s most flaming liberals, George Clooney, to add to the pile. That’s the case with his last year’s Suburbicon, now on Netflix, starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe and Oscar Isaac. It would be easy to dismiss this film as simply another cliché-ridden diatribe against the suburbs and 1950s conformity, and I almost did. And this coming from someone who prefers the idea of downtown living and finds suburban life as monotonous as watching the lawn grow. But the film had something more, just enough edge with enough black humor and some fine performances, that kept me in the pocket. Part of the reason might be that it was co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and it does seem like a Coen movie. From the start it’s opening credits are extraordinarily beautifully campy in depicting a dreamy realtor’s welcoming world to the tract house paradise of late 1950s America, replete with housewives in shirtwaist dresses and heels (the costumes, at least on the women, are impeccable). But there is trouble in Middle America when a black family, the Mayers, move in, apparently mimicking an actual incident from the era in Levittown, Pa. The neighbors rebel as only they could in the racism-unchecked 1950s. But that’s a side story and background to what the picture is really about. That’s the plotting by Gardner (Damon) and Margaret, or Madge (Moore), the name a possible send-up of the prototypical 50s suburban housewife Madge in the old Palmolive commercials. Hiring a couple of Mafia types, they eliminate Gardner’s wheelchair-bound wife, Rose (also Moore). But their hoped for carefree life only spirals downward in a series of bleaker and bleaker episodes. While a tired treatise on the dark underbelly of sunny suburban life Suburbicon nevertheless is redeemed by well-drawn 50s tropes (Green Stamps and Gerald McBoing-Boing, anyone?) and veiled humor.

Meanwhile, in Melvin Goes to Dinner (Bob Odenkirk, 2003), also on Netflix, four of that era’s hip Yuppie types find themselves at dinner in a trendy LA bistro. Based on the play by Michael Blieden, who stars as Alex in the movie, the film is a slow reveal or group therapy for the two men and women, some meeting for the first time. I love films like this, like My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981), where talk can be so much more than action, though there are flashbacks here to incidents, mainly of a romantic or sexual nature. Cheating, pornography, loneliness, alienation, all get their treatment here, though there were times I wished the conversations could have been more fulsome. 

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