‘Suburbicon’ is a film made by talented people and with the best intentions that somehow went wrong. It started as a discarded Coen brothers screenplay that was picked up by George Clooney to direct. It still feels like a Coen movie, only with an added layer of unearned self-importance and political finger-wagging that probably came from you-know-who.
It’s a shame Clooney can’t seem to have the same fun crafting a movie as he seems to have crafting his life. He’s not without directorial talent, but he just never seems sure what to do with it.
The tale is set in a 1950s suburban fantasy known as (wait for it!) Suburbicon! Into this land of cookie-cutter houses and fake smiles moves an African American family. They’re successful and respectful, but are instantly feared and loathed by the community to the point of a riot. Even though they’re such empathetic characters worth attention, the movie isn’t really about them. It’s about the messed up family next door. Matt Damon plays Gardner, the uncomfortable patriarch with a wife (Julianne Moore) and a precocious young boy. Unfortunately, Gardner’s actually in love with his sister-in-law (also played by Moore). A plan is hatched to kill the unwanted Moore so that Gardner can be with the Moore he wants. It all goes horribly wrong. Blood is spilled. Yet no one notices because the neighborhood is more concerned about the family that has the audacity to be black than the one doing all the murdering.
Do you get the message yet? You know, about how racial oppression in the U.S. ignores the country’s true and more ingrained evils. Well, if you don’t get it yet, don’t worry. Clooney uses such awkwardly obvious symbolism (not to mention tastelessly incorporated archival clips) to underline that message. There’s nothing wrong with that statement, but it feels completely out of place in what is otherwise a typical Coen brothers romp about poorly prepared amateur criminals succumbing to the cruel irony of fate.
Clooney and his cinematographer Robert Elswit craft a beautiful, hyper-stylized aesthetic that transforms 1950s fantasies into a pseudo-Technicolor nightmare. The actors are all game and give oddball cartoony turns. That material is amusingly nasty and filled with just the right amount of irony. If the crime plot had been the whole movie, ‘Suburbicon’ would have merely been a derivative sub-Coens lark.
Sadly, Clooney keeps forcing ‘Suburbicon’ into some sort of hamfisted statement on America’s history of racism. Not only does that clash with the rest of this madcap dark comedy, the attempts at hitting on resonant contemporary themes miss wildly enough to come off as tasteless. What a shame – especially since those scenes could have easily been cut out to make this movie a mild misfire instead of a big misstep.