On paper the idea of George Clooney, Matt Damon and the Coen brothers teaming up for a satirical look at suburban American culture circa the late 1950s/early 1960s seems like a winner. The Coens have touched on the underside of Middle America in plenty of their films, while Damon often excels at playing an everyman and Clooney can be a good director when the material is solid. But Clooney — who also contributed to the script with his producing partner Grant Heslov — and the Coens are way off the mark this time. Suburbicon isn’t a complete disaster, thanks to a couple of inspired performances, but it struggles with its tone for its entire length and ends up as a weird collision of two very different movies.
The first movie (which is apparently based on a true 1957 incident) focuses on a young African-American couple who move with their son in 1959 to the town of Suburbicon, which is extolled in an opening animated sequence as the perfect planned neighborhood — safe, clean, healthy, friendly and of course all-white. While the Meyers simply wants to go about their lives with minimal fuss, the other residents of Suburbicon have other ideas: every night they’re out in front of the Meyers’ house, making noise and singing songs, with the protests progressively getting more violent and dangerous. Meanwhile, wife and mother Daisy Meyers (Karimah Westbrook) is told at the local supermarket that milk costs $20 and that she might be better off shopping elsewhere.
This is grave stuff, and on its own could make for a serious movie about the ugly side of suburban middle class living in what was supposedly a golden era for it. But Daisy and her husband (Leith M. Burke) are never developed as anything more than symbols — in fact, we never hear her husband (whose name, William, is also never uttered) say a single word in the entire picture. We are meant to feel bad for what happens to the Meyers — and as decent people, we can’t help but feel bad — but the family and the angry mobs coalescing outside their house are nothing more than stick figures in a situation meant to awkwardly push our buttons.
Meanwhile, around the corner, another movie is playing out, the one that the Coens wrote: a lily-white husband and father named Gardner Lodge (Damon), his tie, gently expanding waistline and horn-rimmed glasses all where they should be, watches in horror as his family is tied up and drugged in their home by a pair of burglars. His wife (Julianne Moore) doesn’t survive the experience, so her twin sister (Moore again) dutifully shows up to help Gardner get his life in order and take care of his little son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Before long, however, we realize that not all is how it seems in this scenario, which also catches the attention of an insurance claims investigator (Oscar Isaac).
What is supposed to be a kind of black comedy along the lines of Fargo — written long before that classic, but with a similar scheme at its center — is not funny at all, partially because Clooney doesn’t have a sense of how to direct comedy and because the movie keeps cutting back to the more somber story of the Meyers. It also doesn’t help that Damon and Moore’s characters come off as creepy and underdeveloped from the start, with only Isaac’s insurance man providing the necessary comedic spark and Glenn Fleshler’s lead burglar bringing a twinkling menace to his performance. Isaac’s relatively brief but lively time in the movie makes you wish his character was front and center. Unlike Fargo, you’re not rooting for anyone here and it’s almost a relief when the third act turns into a bloodbath.
But even there Clooney and the script can’t summon up the sense of the absurd that the Coens might have been able to fashion on their own had they directed this as well. Then again, we suspect that they might never have used the Meyers’ story at all if they had (apparently the brothers wrote the original script more than 30 years ago and never got around to making it, with Clooney and Heslov digging it up and grafting the Meyers plot onto it). The two narratives never really mesh, and the film’s one idea – that the supposedly upright (and white) residents of Suburbicon are literally getting away with murder while the new black neighbors are punished merely for their skin color — does not successfully come across because of the two stories’ wildly disparate tones.
The production design of Suburbicon is right on the money with its 1950s esthetic, but even there we have to wonder: why set this in a heightened version of this kind of development if you’re not going to go full parody with it (think Edward Scissorhands)? It’s clear from the start that Clooney — while a capable enough director on a docudrama like Good Night, and Good Luck. or a straight morality tale like The Ides of March — is in over his head with the tougher nuances of deep noir comedy, a genre that only the Coens and a few others have truly mastered, and he can’t balance the two halves of the picture at all. Suburbicon should probably have stayed in the drawer where the Coens left it.
Suburbicon is out in theaters this Friday (October 27).
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