Film Review: Suburbicon

Muddled merging of an old Coen Brothers crime script and the real-life racist eruption in 1950s Levittown, PA. A misfire for director George Clooney.
Major Releases

As Ray Milland and Rosey Grier, the hapless co-stars of 1972’s campy The Thing With Two Heads, might have warned, some things just shouldn’t be grafted onto each other. Such is the case with Suburbicon, the would-be satire that began as a George Clooney-Grant Heslov project about racism in 1950s Levittown, Pennsylvania, and was integrated into an old Coen Brothers script in the nasty noir spirit of their first success, Blood Simple. The end result is a schizoid stew that sours both plot components.

You watch Suburbicon seeing the potential of its sordid main story, if only it had been made in the punchy, stripped-down style of the Coens’ low-budget debut. But Clooney as director has opted for a big, glossy approach that may have seemed appropriate for a tale set in a literally lily-white, post-WWII suburban planned community but is at odds with the dark doings beneath that pristine surface. And the scenes based on the real-life rancor that greeted the Mayers, the first black family to live in Levittown, seem to belong in an entirely different movie, no matter their heavily “symbolic” contrast to the corrupt white folks next-door.

As the film begins, we meet the deceptively wholesome Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her identical twin sister Margaret (also Moore), and their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe). One night, their apparent bliss is annihilated in a home invasion by two thugs who proceed to chloroform the entire family and administer a fatal dose to Rose.

Gradually, it becomes clear, to both Nicky and the audience, that there’s more to that horrible incident than a simple break-in. Margaret moves into the house—and dyes her hair blonde to match that of her late sister’s—ostensibly to look after the boy, but she and her brother-in-law seem awfully cozy. And why, with Nicky as an inadvertent witness, do Gardner and Margaret fail to identify their assailants in a police lineup?

Things get uglier from there, as Margaret bares her teeth to Nicky and Gardner acts more and more like William H. Macy’s overwhelmed plotter in Fargo. The movie briefly comes alive at the midpoint with the entrance of Oscar Isaac in a sharp performance as a wily insurance-claims investigator. The resolution is as vicious and over-the-top as anything in Blood Simple, Fargo or Burn After Reading.

But then the film keeps cutting back to the unrelated chaos surrounding the Mayers household (again based in fact), as hundreds of white protestors hurl racist insults at them, bang drums and threaten violence. The images are especially disturbing in light of the current political climate, and again one wonders what might have been if Clooney and Heslov had simply dramatized this ugly chapter in Northern American history. But Daisy Mayers (Karimah Westbook) is a one-dimensional paragon of dignity and forbearance, and her husband William (Leith Burke) is onscreen for mere seconds. Ultimately, the Mayers are mere emblems, deserving of a much fuller portrayal than background to Coen Brothers mischief.

Clooney’s vision may be ill-advised but it’s a handsome one, abetted by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit and production designer Jim Bissell, who built his faux Levittown in Southern California. The score by the usually marvelous Alexandre Desplat is nudgingly overproduced.

The performances, at least, can’t be faulted: Damon nicely plays against type as an incompetent scoundrel and Moore adroitly mixes surface sweetness and vitriol. But the film’s discovery is young Noah Jupe, balancing innocence, suspicion and resolve—and sheer terror in a well-directed episode of peril in his own bedroom. His journey is the Suburbicon story that might have succeeded on its own.

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