The only genuine emotion that Suburbicon managed to conjure from me was dread. This creeping feeling arrived not long into George Clooney’s new film, which is based on an old screenplay by the Coen brothers (written in the 1980s, and extensively rewritten by Clooney and his reliable co-scripter Grant Heslov). The film cross-cuts between two disconnected storylines within a cloistered suburban community—one following a madcap life-insurance scam being run by the seemingly upstanding Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), and another following the Mayers, an African American family who recently moved into the neighborhood and are being ostracized by the white residents.
About 30 minutes into the movie, a depressing thought dawned on me: These storylines are never going to intersect. And indeed, they don’t. Rather than make either a goofily violent Coen-brothers homage or a sober retelling of a real-life incident of American intolerance, Clooney decided to do both at the same time—a decision that marginalizes the two stories in bizarre ways. The result is a film that is both mundanely and inimitably bad. Had Suburbicon committed to its primary crime-caper plot, it might have been just another forgettable, uninspired film. But its attempt to haphazardly take on a weightier tale makes Suburbicon a much rarer, and more mesmerizing, kind of catastrophe.
It doesn’t help that Clooney’s heart is obviously in the right place. If anything, his good intentions make Suburbicon all the more frustrating to behold: Its treatment of racism in 1950s America has the air of a rushed homework assignment, a Wikipedia summary of an issue that shouldn’t be used as a cute punctuation point to an otherwise unrelated narrative. Clooney’s aim is to draw out the subtext of many a tale about the dark heart of post-war American suburbia—to point out that whatever soapy dramas were unfolding in Leave It to Beaver–land got more attention than the nastier institutional prejudices of the era.
To prove that point, Clooney has made a film that opens on the plight of an African American family moving into a white suburban community, briefly depicts the torment they suffered there, and then mostly ignores them for the rest of the running time. The film’s marginalization of its black characters is a meta-version of the very idea Clooney is driving at, but that doesn’t make Suburbicon any more palatable. It’s a high-wire storytelling act that’s difficult to imagine any director executing appropriately, and Clooney doesn’t come remotely close to nailing it.
The main arc of Suburbicon, the one originally laid down by the Coen brothers (who wrote the film in 1986 but never shot it), follows the half-witted machinations of Gardner Lodge (Damon), a pillar of the fictional planned community of Suburbicon, who conspires with his sister-in-law Margaret (Julianne Moore) in an insurance scam. Gardner is a classic Coens buffoon, equally calculating and idiotic, and Damon does his best to try and imbue this puffy fool with some real menace. But he and Moore mostly exist to subvert their images—Damon as the friendly everyman, Moore as the perfect housewife—so that the shock of their evil deeds will land a little harder.
Damon’s character is too comically evil to stand in for the average citizens who ignored prejudice around them.
But every twist in the movie is too easy to see coming, even as it lurches into more frightening and violent territory in its final act, when Gardner’s son Nicky (an admirably plucky Noah Jupe) begins to do battle with his father. The film’s only really electrifying moments are generated by Oscar Isaac, who plays a foppish insurance investigator named Bud Cooper (a role that was originally intended for Clooney himself); it’s in his scenes that the darkly funny spark of the Coens’ writing flickers to life. Other than that, Suburbicon feels like weak sauce, impressive only in how pitilessly evil its main characters are.
But then there’s the Mayers family, played by Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke, with Tony Espinosa as their son Andy. The film begins with an angry Suburbicon town meeting that uses excerpts from the virulently racist petition that the inhabitants of Levittown, Pennsylvania, drew up to try and drive out the real-life Myers family in 1957. Later, a riot that unfolds outside the Mayers’ house leads to Confederate flags being stuffed into their windows—again, drawn from the historical record. What we don’t see is any interior life of the family being victimized, or any attempt at understanding the horror they went through.
The only link between the two threads is a budding friendship between Andy and Nicky, who play baseball together; otherwise, Gardner and Margaret seem literally unaware of what’s happening even as a riot is unfolding next door. Clooney wants to comment on how blinkered white America’s view of 1950s racism was, but an idiotic fraudster is an odd character to depict that banal ignorance with, especially as his own web of crime becomes increasingly macabre. Damon’s character is too busy with his own nonsense, and too comically evil, to effectively stand in for the average citizens who ignored prejudice all around them. He is, however, a perfect symbol of the disastrous decision Clooney made—a one-dimensional protagonist for an issue that should be anything but cartoonish.