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How movies like ‘Suburbicon’ attempt to deconstruct American suburbs

Julianne Moore and Matt Damon in

Julianne Moore and Matt Damon in "Suburbicon." Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures / Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

The wives do the shopping, the husbands do the working and the kids like to play baseball in “Suburbicon,” a fictional American town that lends its name to George Clooney’s new film, which arrives in theaters Friday, Oct. 27. As it turns out, this clean-cut, post-War scenario is too good to be true. Although “Suburbicon” begins as the story of a wholesome-seeming family — Matt Damon and Julianne Moore play dad and mom — it ends in violence, bloodshed and murder.

“Suburbicon” is Hollywood’s latest attempt to define and deconstruct the American suburb, a place that has taken on near-mythological status since it began expanding across the country in the middle of the 20th century. To a generation that lived through World War II, the suburbs promised peace, quiet, fresh air and a relief from urban congestion and crime. (It also drove white flight, as “Suburbicon” makes clear in a racially-charged subplot.) Although suburbia has its cinematic champions — Steven Spielberg comes to mind — it most often came to be seen as a false paradise, where problems fester and unhappiness can’t be kept at bay.

“We’re always trying to build a utopian society, and for the Baby Boomers, suburbia became that utopia,” says Peter Mascuch, an associate English professor and chair of cinema studies at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue. “The flip side is, the utopia never lived up to its promise. People became disenchanted, and then they react to that with critical and dark depictions of the reality of it.”

Over the years, the suburbs have served as a backdrop for horror (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”), social commentary (“The Stepford Wives”) and, lest we forget, feel-good comedy (“Mr. Mom”). Here’s a quick survey course in suburban cinema, broken down into five categories:

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

It wasn’t long after the suburban boom that movies began peeking into the dark corners of all those mass-produced houses. One of the earliest examples is “Peyton Place,” the 1957 adaptation of Grace Metalious’ scandalous book about depravity and hypocrisy in a bucolic New England town. Starring Lana Turner, Hope Lange and Arthur Kennedy, the film tackled such taboo topics as rape, incest and abortion, and wound up earning nine Oscar nominations (but won none).

Though “Peyton Place” is somewhat forgotten today, it remains a blueprint for a certain genre of dark suburban drama. Ang Lee filmed the 1970s version, “The Ice Storm” (1997), starring Christina Ricci as a girl whose parents turn to partner-swapping when their marriage crumbles; Sam Mendes directed the late ’90s version, “American Beauty” (1999), with Kevin Spacey as a middle-aged man who tries to seduce one of his daughter’s high-school classmates; and now “Suburbicon” goes full circle back to the 1950s.

HOUSES OF HORROR

It seems like a no-brainer to transplant the age-old haunted house story into the contemporary suburbs, but it wasn’t until 1977 that Jay Anson’s book “The Amityville Horror” truly capitalized on the idea. It told the supposedly true tale of a family whose new home, on Ocean Avenue in Amityville, turns out to be a literal hellhole, plagued by flies, disease and demons. The 1979 film, starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, spawned more than a dozen sequels and spinoffs. Even Steven Spielberg’s “Poltergeist” (1982), a modern classic of horror, steals liberally from the Amityville story, right down to the house’s location on an old burial ground.

Other notable suburban horror movies include “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), Wes Craven’s inventive story about teenagers whose dreams affect reality; the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, in which homeowners are terrorized by slamming doors and kitchen drawers; and this year’s “It,” an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a small town whose dark secrets take form and prey on children.

KIDS GONE WILD

When people think of the 1955 juvenile-delinquent classic “Rebel Without a Cause,” they mostly think of James Dean’s good looks and moody intensity, but much of the film’s impact comes from director Nicholas Ray (“Bigger than Life,” “Johnny Guitar”). A keen observer of post-War neurosis, Ray used “Rebel” as a way to put the American family on the couch, raising questions about everything from masculine role models (Jim Backus, as Dean’s father, famously wears an apron in one scene) to Cold War anxiety (a field trip to the Griffith Observatory, where students watch an end-of-the-cosmos scenario, seems like a stand-in for nuclear destruction).

With its quaint hot-rods and switchblades, “Rebel Without a Cause” seems tame compared with “Over the Edge,” Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 gritty film about angry teenagers (including Matt Dillon, in his screen debut) who turn their school into a battle-zone complete with shootings and car-bombings. (As one adult character tells another: “You’ve turned your kids into the very things you left the city to escape from.”) Another high point in this subgenre is Penelope Spheeris’ little-seen but excellent “Suburbia” (1983), a punk-rock melodrama about outcast kids who turn an abandoned tract house into a makeshift home.

LITERARY SUBURBIA

During the 1960s, three authors staked their claim on the American suburbs: John Cheever, John Updike and Richard Yates. All produced works that would catch the eye of Hollywood, though their insights into suburban life would prove hard to illuminate on the big screen.

Cheever’s 12-page short story “The Swimmer” became the 1964 movie of the same name, starring Burt Lancaster as a seemingly happy man who decides to travel across his neighborhood by swimming through people’s backyard pools. Updike’s most famous book, “Rabbit, Run,” about a husband fleeing his responsibilities, became a 1970 film with James Caan in the lead role. As for Yates, his anguished 1961 novel “Revolutionary Road” wouldn’t make it to theaters until Sam Mendes’ 2008 adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a couple trapped by their idea of happiness.

None of these movies were hits (“Rabbit, Run” fared so poorly in a test-screening that Warner Bros. barely released it to theaters), though their source materials are still worth reading. The same goes for “Neighbors,” a 1981 comedy in which John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd play against type as an amiable homeowner and a nightmarish boor, respectively; the little-known source novel, by Thomas Berger, is a much different and much darker beast.

THE PROMISED LAND

Not all movies set in the suburbs are parodies, perversions or horror shows. In many ways, suburbia has simply replaced Small Town, U.S.A., as the cinematic ideal of our childhood homes. If there’s one filmmaker who turned himself into the patron saint of suburbia, it’s surely John Hughes, whose streak of hit films in the 1980s were often set in the wholesome, fictional town of Shermer, Illinois.

What Bedford Falls was to Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Shermer is to Hughes’ movies — a small, safe community where all important life lessons can be learned. It’s where five students from different cliques learn to respect each other in “The Breakfast Club” (1985) and where a free-spirited teenager lives some of his most memorable moments in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986). Its most magical version, though, is probably in “Sixteen Candles” from 1984, starring Molly Ringwald as a girl whose landmark 16th birthday ends with a pink dress, a cake and a kiss from a handsome boy.

GOOD NEIGHBORS ARE HARD TO FIND

“Suburbicon,” George Clooney’s latest movie as a director, tells two stories set in a fictional American suburb during the 1950s. In one, a black family moves into an all-white neighborhood, setting off protests that explode into a full-blown riot. In the other, a seemingly upstanding husband and father (Matt Damon) becomes embroiled in fraud, extortion and murder.

“We thought it would be great to have this black family that everyone is pointing at, and then this house right behind them where all this murder and mayhem is going on,” says Grant Helsov, who wrote the screenplay with Clooney and the Coen brothers. “That’s what was interesting to us.”

Heslov, a longtime writing and producing partner with Clooney (“The Monuments Men,” “Good Night, and Good Luck”), says “Suburbicon” began life roughly 20 years ago as a typically noirish script from the Coens. They initially offered Clooney a supporting role as an insurance investigator — in the new film, Oscar Isaac plays that part — but the project never got off the ground. A couple of years ago, when Heslov and Clooney began mulling a film inspired by the 1957 riots sparked by a black family moving into Levittown, Pennsylvania, Clooney remembered the Coens’ old script.

Heslov says much of the re-written film — particularly scenes of angry whites building a high wooden wall around the black family — is intended to reflect Trump-era attitudes toward outsiders and immigrants, as well as the dangers of harking back to a nostalgic past. “People talk about how great it was back then,” says Heslov. “But that’s only if you were white.”

Still, Heslov stops short of calling “Suburbicon” an allegory or satire of contemporary America. “There are hopefully some really funny moments in the film,” says Heslov. “The movie we wanted to make is a fun, entertaining ride with lots of twists — and some darkness.”

— RAFER GUZMÁN

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