This scattershot satire of the dark underbelly of 1950s suburbia feels like a movie the Coen brothers forgot to make. It is their script, which means the laughs still have bite. And the director is George Clooney, who’s previously worked as an actor with the Coens, sometimes smashingly (O Brother Where Are Thou, Burn After Reading), sometimes not (Intolerable Cruelty). But the star, staying behind the camera here, lacks the instinct to go for the jugular the way the material demands. Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov updated the siblkings’ screenplay to add dramatic heft to the mockery. Ironically, Suburbicon succeeds best when it uses the film noir genre to send up a whites-only view of America that’s not nearly as dated as it should be in the Trump era.
A doc-type prologue sets the scene as cookie-cutter families line up to purchase cookie-cutter homes in the cookie-cutter neighborhood of Suburbicon (think Levittown, Pennsylvania). Everything looks perfect for Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), a finance exec living the good life with his wheelchair-bound, blonde wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), their regulation-cute son, Nicky (Noah Jupe) and Rose’s livewire sister, Margaret (also Moore, this time as a brunette). Then, boom: The Lodges suffer a home invasion. The invaders (Glenn Flesher and Alex Hassell), who look like escapees from Raising Arizona, chloroform everyone. Later, in a hospital, Rose dies.
And, in short order, Margaret moves in, replacing her sister in Gardner’s house and in his bed, even dying her hair Hitchcock blonde. Smell a rat? So does an insurance investigator (played by Oscar Isaac in the film’s best performance), a first-rate sleaze who knows how to recognize other sleazes. For a while, Clooney gives Suburbicon a dark, Double Indemnity gravity that gives Damon, Moore, Isaac and young Jupe something to dig their teeth into.
Where the film goes wrong is its grafting on a subplot about racism that, however admirable, gives the film a hectoring tone that wreaks havoc with its blistering comic thrust. The Lodge’s new neighbors, the Meyers, have just moved onto the block – and since mom (Karimah Westbrook), dad (Leith M. Burke) and their son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), are African-American, their presence sets off a lynch-mob mentality that would sound absurd if it weren’t based on actual back-in-the-day events in Levittown. Clooney’s indignation over the treatment of this family and the race riot that ensues is righteous. But his earnest telling of the Meyers story – complete with a redemptive connection between Nicky and Andy (the children shall lead them!) – is jarringly at odds with the caustic lampoon of human behavior that hides its toxicity behind bland respectability. Clooney is too talented and committed a filmmaker not to get in his licks. But with Suburbicon, he’s made a movie that is tonally at war with itself.