Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen -

DI­REC­TOR Ge­orge Clooney

CAST Matt Da­mon, Ju­lianne Moore, Ge­orge Clooney, Noah Jupe, Os­car Isaac

PLOT 1950s Amer­ica. The re­ac­tionary neigh­bour­hood of Subur­bicon is ap­palled by the ar­rival of a black fam­ily, the Mey­ers (West­brook, Burke, Espinosa). Mean­while, across the street, Gard­ner Lodge (Da­mon) suf­fers a home in­va­sion.

THE START OF Ge­orge Clooney’s Subur­bicon is fa­mil­iar but fun: a promo for a ’50s US neigh­bour­hood, de­scribed as “a melt­ing pot of di­ver­sity” but ex­clu­sively white, where kids play catch, house­wives gos­sip and the whistling post­man knows ev­ery­one by name. In­side this idyl­lic mi­lieu, Clooney’s film fash­ions two sto­ry­lines: one is a noirish pot­boiler based on a long-lost script by the Coen broth­ers; the other is a civil rights era drama in­spired by a real-life in­ci­dent in Le­vit­town, Penn­syl­va­nia. The re­sult is a weird hy­brid, the Coens’ black hearts meld­ing with Clooney’s lib­eral one, and the re­sult is a spo­rad­i­cally en­ter­tain­ing, ton­ally all-over-the­p­lace, ul­ti­mately be­wil­der­ing cut ’n’ shut of a movie.

The movie starts with the small-town racism thread. The ar­che­typal post­man de­liv­ers a let­ter to Mrs Mey­ers (West­brook), only to be hor­ri­fied to find she is black (he ini­tially mis­takes her for the maid). The Mey­ers’ ar­rival sparks op­pro­brium, an emer­gency Town Hall meet­ing and — in a move of Trumpian pro­por­tions — a fence con­structed around the Mey­ers’ house. Clooney de­liv­ers scraps of mo­ments in the Mey­ers’ lives — shop­ping in a gro­cery store, Mrs Mey­ers finds the price of milk is im­me­di­ately hiked up to

$20 — but ul­ti­mately their story is side­lined by the Coens’ tale. Save young son Tony (Espinosa), the Mey­ers are not al­lowed to be char­ac­ters in their own right. They are dig­ni­fied and stoic in the face of ha­tred but given no di­men­sion or nu­ance. We know as lit­tle about them at the end as when we started.

Across the street is Gard­ner Lodge

(a cu­ri­ously dis­en­gaged Da­mon), mar­ried to Rose (blonde Moore), em­bit­tered and wheel­chair-bound af­ter a car ac­ci­dent, with a young son, Nicky (Jupe), and shar­ing the house with Rose’s sis­ter (brunette Moore). Their lives are up­turned by a home in­va­sion that kick-starts a well-worn nexus of de­cep­tion, plans gone awry and es­ca­lat­ing body parts. This is part of the prob­lem. Clooney doesn’t find any­thing new to say about the dark­ness lurk­ing be­hind the picket fences in ’50s Amer­ica.

It is also a weird patch­work of dif­fer­ent tones and moods, from low com­edy (Da­mon on a kid’s bike) to pow­er­ful so­cial drama (a race riot) via S&M (Da­mon with pad­dles). The ironic tenor of the Coens flits in and out. At other times, it looks like it has been di­rected by Dou­glas Sirk, Hitch­cock, Stan­ley Kramer and Blue Vel­vet- era Lynch. But the film’s ma­jor fail­ing is Clooney never man­ages to unify the two dis­tinct tales, be it nar­ra­tively, ton­ally or the­mat­i­cally. The big­gest loser is the racial in­tim­i­da­tion story. Parachuted into a height­ened Coens-es­que world with­out any space to de­velop, it rep­re­sents the kind of marginal­i­sa­tion you feel Clooney would ab­hor. The real events at Le­vit­town de­served bet­ter.

There are re­deem­ing fea­tures: Clooney skil­fully etches the grow­ing dis­trust of a young child (Jupe is ex­cel­lent at be­ing ret­i­cent) — a vi­o­lent fight played out ex­clu­sively from Nicky’s view un­der a bed is par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive. The film­mak­ing, from Robert El­swit’s lush vi­su­als to Alexan­dre De­s­plat’s in­sis­tent Her­rman­nesque score, is pol­ished. And Os­car Isaacs as an in­sur­ance in­ves­ti­ga­tor, a “pro­fes­sional sceptic” fish­ing for de­tails from Moore, is a de­light. It’s just a shame that he is in a dif­fer­ent film from ev­ery­one else: the film he is in looks great.


VER­DICT Subur­bicon is a strange beast: a by-the-num­bers ’40s film noir bolted to an un­sat­is­fy­ing ’60s racial drama wrapped up in a ’50s Amer­i­cana satire. A strong cast and ta­lented di­rec­tor never make the whole add up.

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