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.