Things I was unprepared for in George Clooney’s Suburbicon, based on the trailers: (1) Fatt Damon spanking Julianne Moore (doing a weird Marilyn Monroe impression) with a ping-pong paddle, (2) Oscar Isaac’s mustache (even though I knew it was coming), (3) racism playing a central role to the film’s plot and (4) the sounds Fatt Damon makes when eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Around 30 years ago, Joel and Ethan Coen wrote Suburbicon. The fact that they didn’t direct it, and that Clooney and Grant Heslov wrote another draft, makes it impossible to know who thought it was a good idea to attempt to make a point about white bigotry in a murderous black comedy.
Set in the late 1950s, the film opens with an extended sequence detailing the idyllic origins of Suburbicon, a utopian neighborhood. When a black family moves into a white house, everyone loses their minds and acts vile, making ugly decisions that are ultimately against their own self-interests. So, yes, it’s a metaphorical take on present-day America with slightly less gun violence, as some people are killed with knives and poison instead.
Fatt Damon plays Gardner Lodge, a schlub whose wife, Rose (Moore), is killed during a home invasion that isn’t what it appears. When Gardner and his wife’s sister, Margaret (also Moore), intentionally refuse to identify the killers in a police lineup, his son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), wisely figures out things are going to get very bad very fast. An insurance claims adjuster, Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac), shows up asking the right/wrong questions and everyone goes bonkers. All of this happens while, right next door, white people are openly torturing a black family. The climax involves a hate crime and Fatt Damon frantically peddling a tiny bicycle, which are actually two separate things here.
As someone who adores the genre-jumbling shenanigans of Joon-ho Bong and the grim nonsense that happens when the Coen brothers Fargo for it, Suburbicon’s intention to frappe together vastly disparate tones is groovy. Except it gets none of those tones quite right. The dark comedy is never funny enough, the macabre nihilism is never sincere enough, the critique of racism is never substantive enough and the noir thriller aspects are never thrilly enough. Original ambition makes even the most categorical misfire more interesting to watch than safe, measured repetition, but Suburbicon is all ambition with little execution.
When white writers and directors and actors and producers get together to make a film that predominantly features racism, they have a responsibility to make a far, far more salient point than this. Ostensibly, the message is that the white neighbors condemning the new black family are not only ugly bigots, they’re stupid hypocrites who fail to see that the real evil has lived in the house next door to them this whole time. That sounds like an OK point to make, but it doesn’t play OK here. It plays weirdly trite and exploitative and not as sophisticated as it needed to be. Basically, repeatedly working with the Coens didn’t turn Clooney into a Coen any more than his playing a doc on E.R. means I’d let him near me with a scalpel.
This review previously appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Nebraska.