* (out of four)
DIRECTED BY George Clooney
STARS Matt Damon, Julianne Moore
The original script for Suburbicon was written by Joel and Ethan Coen back in 1986, shortly after the dynamic duo flashed their calling card in the form of their debut beauty, 1985’s Blood Simple. Shelving the script, the siblings instead moved forward with 1987’s brilliant Raising Arizona, although they later incorporated some of Suburbicon’s elements into their Oscar-winning screenplay for 1996’s Fargo.
Coen pal George Clooney later got hold of the script for Suburbicon and planned to turn it into a movie as far back as 2005. Instead, one thing led to another, and it’s only now that Suburbicon is hitting theaters, with direction by Clooney and a Coen script that has since been modified by Clooney and his frequent writing partner Grant Heslov. Given the ghastly result, perhaps the Coens should sue, since it’s almost inconceivable that their original idea bore much resemblance to a debacle that unexpectedly has emerged as one of the year’s worst films.
Topical yet tone-deaf, Suburbicon initially appears as if it will focus on the tensions that emerge when a black family moves into a white middle-class neighborhood in 1959. With an unrepentant white supremacist soiling the White House and his dimwitted supporters spewing their hatred at various rallies and marches (oh, and on the Internet), a movie examining unbridled racism certainly couldn’t be timelier. But no, this is merely a side dish to the real plotline, which centers on the plight facing mild-mannered neighbor Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), their son Nicky (appealing Noah Jupe), and Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore). A home invasion by two seedy criminals (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) results in one death – this is turn leads to a cover-up, a visit from an insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac), and several more slayings.
The sequences involving the Lodges – that is to say, the majority of the movie – is pitched as a dark comedy, but since Clooney doesn’t share the Coens’ natural aptitude for satire, these scenes prove to be awfully heavy-handed and stridently overbearing. The Coens must share some of the blame, though, for creating such flat characters in the first place. (Then again, there was a reason the brothers tossed this aside back in ’86.)
The portions of the film focusing on the African-American family – Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) and their son Andy (Tony Espinosa) – are presented in far more dramatic fashion, wisely stripped of any comedic underpinnings. Yet witnessing the Mayers being harassed on a daily basis and seeing their car firebombed works in direct conflict to the broad comedy unfolding elsewhere in the film, and the only possible reaction is one of embarrassment. Clooney of course means well, but his point that the nice black family is being persecuted while no one pays any attention to the white scumbags next door couldn’t be more clumsy or obvious.
By repeatedly shunting the Mayers storyline to the back burner in what turns out to be a dismissive and even condescending manner, Suburbicon is no different than the countless other movies that believe – excuse the Casablanca paraphrase – the problems of three black people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy Caucasian world. It’s the same old cinematic song, even more off-key than usual.