Across their more than 30-year oeuvre, the Joel and Ethan Coen have given us sucker punches, racial discord in America’s past, casually brutal comic violence, a murderous husband who employs two inept cronies, innumerable round little men in little ties and high-waisted pants, and even more buffoonish criminal plots that spiral out of hand. Now, with their nearly three-decade-old script for Suburbicon, the Coen Brothers have given all those endearing tropes (and more) to their frequent star George Clooney. Unfortunately, Clooney and his just as frequent writing partner Grant Heslov have taken all that and made something that’s an even less memorable Coen and Clooney collaboration than Intolerable Cruelty. And you had almost certainly forgotten about Intolerable Cruelty.
Clooney’s latest in now six uneven stabs at directing, the film’s premise will be familiar to all who’ve watched anything subtitled “A Dateline Investigation.” Matt Damon stars as a man whose wife is murdered under wildly strange circumstances that see his son, his spouse, and her twin sister held hostage in their own home. Police and insurance fraud investigators soon start looking into Damon and his unusually close sister-in-law, and very quickly it’s easy for them and all Lifetime Original Movie fans to figure out the betrayal that’s going here. Julianne Moore, returning to Far from Heaven‘s vision of thinly-veiled ’50s dystopia, plays both the wife and sister; Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac appears as the claims investigator, and again uses his Coens-inspired time for all its worth with a standout performance.
That’s the meat of Suburbicon, but it’s the superfluous toppings that really kill this Coen-Clooney melt. The movie opens with a sequence broadly satirizing ’50s suburbia—right down to explaining that, oof, the suburb itself is actually called Suburbicon! (Sadly, another all-too-deliberately winking movie already took Pleasantville.) This unsubtle critique of Leave It to Beaver‘s pseudo-reality is a tired relic of Baby Boomers, sure, but with a deft hand, it can still give a solid background to a story. Yet Clooney, even when advancing from the era and failures of his ’20s-set Leatherheads, never quite finds what it takes—or even quite a protagonist—to make it work.
Suburbicon‘s pointed satire, broadcast by an upbeat, jingle-jangle soundtrack to contrast ironically against the era’s revolting racial prejudice, is half forgotten by five minutes in. After that, the lighting and music lazily shift to those of a stock period drama, and the fact that we’re meant to be condescending enough as to literally call this place “Suburbicon” gets lost in a cacophony of maudlin strings and—oh, right, the far more explicit cacophony of white people screaming, beating drums, and rage-singing at their new, black neighbors.
Yeah, there’s also that for some reason.
Amid a goofy but never that funny story of crime follies, Clooney asks not just for us to occasionally—orchestral score begging—feel for its A-plot, but also to weep for a B-plot that is both inexplicable and far too real—quite literally. In the background of this thing, connected by only the thinnest string (a tin-can telephone, to be exact), the story of William and Daisy Myers plays out. They were an actual black couple who found violent prejudice in a white Pennsylvania suburb of the ’50s. Yet their presence here, while no doubt well-intentioned, couldn’t be more senselessly, offensively pointless. Their story is important, and it deserves to be told. But in a far more cogent movie than this slight, tone-deaf bit of mediocrity.
Director: George Clooney
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 105 minutes
Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac