FILM REVIEW – SUBURBICON. With Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Gary Basaraba. Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and George Clooney & Grant Heslov. Directed by George Clooney. Rated R for violence, language, and some sexuality. 104 minutes.
It’s so easy to spot the problem with SUBURBICON, and it’s surprising that neither director George Clooney, nor his screenwriting team which included the Coen Brothers, nor his cast headed up by Matt Damon and Julianne Moore was able to spot it. Intended as a dark satire of 1950s suburbia, it presents two stories that play off against each other in such a contrived manner that it’s as if Clooney stood in front of the camera shouting, “Here’s the point we’re making!”
The setting is Suburbicon, a housing development not unlike Levittown, which is introduced in a witty prologue. Then two stories are set in motion. One involves the Meyers, the first black family to move into the neighborhood to the shock and dismay of their racist neighbors. Unfortunately, we learn virtually nothing about these characters, and so they are literally tokens subjected to increasing abuse.
The one neighbor who isn’t concerned are the Lodge family where Nicky (Noah Jupe) is encouraged to play with their young son. One night the Lodges are subjected to a home invasion by oily thugs who tie up Gardner (Matt Damon), his wife and sister-in-law (both played by Julianne Moore), and Nicky. The result of that crime constitutes the bulk of the story and so no further details will be provided. Suffice to say that as the story unfolds, we get a twisted image of the suburban dream.
The supposed irony is that while everyone blames the arrival of the Meyers for bringing “crime” into the neighborhood, it turns out that it is the white residents who are engaging in increasingly obnoxious and violent protests. They would do better to look at themselves. If the story of the Meyers was only one of several counterpoints to the unraveling of the Lodge family, it might have worked. Alone the story of suburban racism demands either to be the focus of the movie or cut out altogether so we can focus on the increasingly strange goings-on at the Lodges.
“Suburbicon” falls into that category of “interesting failure.” It doesn’t really work as intended but Clooney (and his production design team) create a vivid portrait of ’50s suburbia. Damon and Moore do a credible job as characters navigating the secret underworld of the community with Jupe a standout as the youngster caught in the middle of all of this. The problem is that the cartoonish and ironic violence of their story does not work well with the serious bigotry depicted in the Meyers’ tale. In a year that has given us “Get Out” and “Detroit,” this is a lightweight rendition of a serious matter and not the “statement” that was apparently intended.
This is one of those films where you have to sift through it to find the nuggets of satisfaction, like the arrival of Oscar Isaac as an insurance claim investigator who steals the movie in just a couple of scenes. Yet when you get to the all too clever and pat final moment of the film, of two boys playing catch, you find yourself wondering how they could have possibly missed the fact that the film never formed a coherent whole.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.