Top 10 Box Office Busts

T10B Box Office Bust Nominee: Suburbicon

Synopsis: With a production budget of $25 million, Suburbicon (2017) proved to be a financial failure with less than $6 million in ticket sales at the box office. While underwhelming, those numbers ordinarily wouldn’t show up on the radar screen of Top10Busts. However, when a movie written by the Coen brothers, directed by George Clooney, and starring Matt Damon performs so poorly, I get intrigued. Given the reasonable budget, all of the major participants must have passed up their usual fees hoping to make a return on the back-end. If so, they took a bath on this box office bust. Instead of wasting your time with a story and acting reminiscent of an episode of Dateline, watch the Coens’ Oscar winning Fargo (1996) instead.


T10B BOX OFFICE BUST NOMINEE: SUBURBICON

Plot (unbiased version):  Everything appears to be copacetic in the post-World War II planned community of Suburbicon. After the first black family moves to town, turmoil replaces serenity when racial bigotry surfaces and a botched robbery results in the murder of one of the residents.

Plot (biased version): A less violent version of Fargo (1996) set in a more racially charged version of Pleasantville (1998). Take my advice, watch each of those movies and skip Suburbicon. 

Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov.

Director: George Clooney.

Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov.

Actors:  Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac.

Metacritic score: 42 (slightly negative reviews).

BOX OFFICE NUMBERS*
Movie Release Date Estimated Production Costs** Opening Gross Ticket Sales Theaters Opening Gross / Theater Lifetime Gross Ticket Sales
Suburbicon Oct 27, 2017 $25 million $2.8 million 2,046 $1,388 $5.8 million

* Information provided by boxofficemojo.com.

** Information provided by IMDb.

SUBURBICON – SET UP
THE WRITERS: JOEL AND ETHAN COEN (i.e. The Coen Brothers)

The Coen Brothers have written numerous all-time classics, such as Raising Arizona (1987), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), and No Country for Old Men (2007). In addition to winning Oscars for writing Fargo and No Country for Old Men, the talented duo received Oscar nominations for writing Bridge of Spies (2015), True Grit (2010), A Serious Man (2009), and O Brother, Where Art Thou. Given their impressive résumé, the brothers have earned a reputation for being comic geniuses.

THE DIRECTOR: GEORGE CLOONEY

George Clooney may be best known as an A-List actor who has starred in blockbusters like The Perfect Storm (2000), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), and Gravity (2013). Prior to transitioning to the big screen, he conquered the small screen with his portrayal of Doug Ross on the long-running NBC hit ER. In addition to earning two Emmy nominations in that role, Rosemary’s nephew served as the first McDreamy / McSteamy en route to winning People Magazine’s title of “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1997. 

As a director, Clooney hasn’t experienced the same success with only one of his movies generating over $50 million domestically at the box office. The Monuments Men (2014) earned $78 million in the U.S. and $77 million internationally so that movie can be considered a financial success given its $70 million production budget.

Prior to Suburbicon, Clooney also had an on-screen role in each of the movies he directed. Perhaps he should have kept to the script because he didn’t appear in his most recent effort. At a minimum, he arguably should have had a cameo to entice his fans.

THE STAR: MATT DAMON

Perhaps best known as Jimmy Kimmel’s frequently overlooked guest, Matt Damon has achieved A-list box office success with almost $7 billion in international ticket sales. I’ll always associate Damon with his role as “Good” Will Hunting, but he has excelled portraying Jason Bourne on the big screen, as well as Brett Kavanaugh on the small screen.

All kidding aside, Damon surprisingly has had more success at the box office than Clooney. People Magazine’s 2007 “Sexiest Man Alive” single-handedly carried three movies to international ticket sales approaching $1.5 billion (i.e. The Martian (2015) with $630MM, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) with $440MM, and Jason Bourne (2016) with $415MM). In comparison, the 1997 “Sexiest Man Alive” only generated $800 million in his top three individual movies (i.e. The Perfect Storm (2000) with $330MM, Batman and Robin (1997) with $240MM, and Tomorrowland (2015) with $210MM). While each of Damon’s top 3 movies deserved its box office success, only The Perfect Storm can be considered a good movie worthy of being a financial success.

DOWNFALL
SHELVED SCRIPT

The Coen brothers wrote the original script for Suburbicon in 1986, almost 30 years before the movie ultimately hit the big screen. It remained dormant until George Clooney agreed to act in and direct the movie in the mid-2000s. The future Mr. Amal Alamuddin had just starred in the Oscar-nominated O Brother, Where Art Thou when he agreed to take on the project. I can only imagine that he experienced a “Lake Como High” after hanging out with Coens for a late-night conversation. Still, it took another 10+ years for the script to be rewritten and the movie to be made.

After shelving Suburbicon, the Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay for Fargo. I can understand why they scrapped the rough draft before settling on the Oscar-winning version. At the same time, I can appreciate why Hollywood executives rummaged through the trash to resurrect a rough draft as if it were gold.

There are numerous examples of writers who shelf projects because the timing isn’t right. I offer Mark Twain waiting almost 20 years to finish The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which may be the best example of American Literature to this day. To those of you who think that his using the “N-word” makes him a racist, you couldn’t be more wrong. Before getting too far out of my lane, I’ll simply say that my daughter won a national writing award based on that premise.

While Twain’s work likely benefited from the delay, the Coen brothers’ effort didn’t. To be fair, George Clooney and Grant Heslov apparently co-opted the Coens’ script and incorporated it into their own misguided story. To the extent someone deserves blame for a bad script, it shouldn’t be either Joel or Ethan Coen.

POLITICAL AGENDA

With seemingly grand ambitions, Clooney and Heslov tried to give audience a two-for-one special by combining a real-life story of racial bigotry in the 1950s with a fictional murder mystery. The only connection between the two disconnected stories involved the suburban setting. Even though both stories involve next-door neighbors, they never truly connect with any cohesion or meaning. 

In an article for The Atlantic, David Sims referenced an interview he had with George Clooney at the Toronto International Film Festival. Specifically, Sims quoted Clooney as saying:

I got an idea about sort of mixing these two [stories] up and having everybody looking in the wrong direction. I thought it would be the fun way to talk about these issues . . . [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.

To repeat, the two stories involve the racial bigotry suffered by a black family living in an all-white community and a murder mystery typical of a Coen brothers’ black comedy. To the extent Clooney wanted everybody to look in the wrong direction by focusing on the white family instead of the black family, he succeeded. While the two subplots could have created an interesting twist, they inexplicably fail to intertwine with any success. In that regard, Clooney failed.

Apparently, the story Clooney and Heslov wanted to tell changed after Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Specifically, Heslov told Sims:

When we wrote the script, we, like most people, didn’t expect Trump to win.

In response, Clooney remarked:

Yeah, [the original script] was funnier. I don’t predict anything anymore.

If I can offer my take on the conversation, Clooney and Heslov changed the script in order to expose racial bigotry in a post-Trump America. I saw the movie and missed that message entirely. What I get from the exchange is that Clooney intentionally decided to a less funny version of a comedy. If you ask me, that’s a recipe for a failure. I recognize that the Coen brothers got co-writing credits, but I doubt that they appreciate that their names are attached to this botched interpretation of their original vision.

DAMON AS A DOUGH BOY

Prior to Suburbicon, The Informant! (2009) was Damon’s worst performing wide-release movie (i.e. shown in over 2,000 theaters). With less than $6 million in global box office receipts, Suburbicon dramatically fell short of the $40 million pulled in by The Informant!

MATT DAMON IN THE INFORMANT!
What’s different from Damon’s usual look? Oh yeah, he has glasses, a mustache, and a Dad Bod.
MATT DAMON IN SUBURBICON
Damon skipped the mustache, but he still has the glasses and the Dad Bod.

I have enjoyed many of Matt Damon’s movies. At the same time, I realize that he lacks the range to pull off certain roles. Specifically, he seems unconvincing as an average person.

Two months after the release of Suburbicon, Damon failed to carry Downsizing (2017). That movie lost money for the studio based on a $68 million budget and global box office ticket sales of $55 million. With that tally, it became Damon’s third least grossing wide-release movie.

MATT DAMON IN DOWNSIZING (2017)
No mustache or glasses, but he still has the Dad Bod.

Note to studios, the doughy version of Damon will not draw the desired audience.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Despite anything I might have heard or read previously, I recently watched Suburbicon with a clean slate. While scrolling through the new offerings of my cable provider, I selected the movie simply because I thought, “Heck, Damon’s in it. How bad can it be?” After watching it, I’ll no longer have that thought. After following up Suburbicon with Downsizing, I’ll certainly never have that thought again.

Suburbicon registered a Metacritic score of 42, which is only slightly negative. Based on the reviews I read, I don’t know how it received a score that high. The following quotes offer the most entertaining take on the general consensus.

Blake Harper wrote:

The problem with ‘Suburbicon’ is that it desperately wants to be something it’s not: good.

In an article for The Ringer, K. Austin Collins wrote: 

It’s a complex, conflict movie that is as well intentioned as it is ultimately meaningless.

I couldn’t agree more with these criticisms. 

Long story short: Any movie written by the Coen brothers, directed by George Clooney, and starring Matt Damon should make more than $6 million at the box office. If not, it’s a bust.

T10B BOX OFFICE BUST NOMINEE: SUBURBICON

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