By Jim Slotek
If you enter the theatre pre-warned that the dark Eisenhower-era comedy Suburbicon was directed by George Clooney from an early Joel and Ethan Coen script, you might be inclined to play a game of “who was responsible for this scene?”
Or you might decide that game is too easy. Mordant and absurd? That’s the Coens. Righteous and angry because racism is bad? That would be Clooney.
A creative fish-and-a-bicycle, Suburbicon starts out like a call-back to vintage Coens, with a newsreel promotion of a planned community of picket fences, smiling milkmen and carriage-pushing housewives. An Atomic Age Potemkin Village, Suburbicon is not all smiles behind the façade – as we discover when we meet the not-so-happy Lodge family.
Dad (Matt Damon) and his sister-in-law Margaret (Julianne Moore) play caregiver to his paralyzed wife/her twin sister (Moore again) as young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) tries to fit in and makes friends with a neighbour black kid (Tony Espinosa) whose parents ((Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) have just moved in.
Nicky is traumatized by a home invasion, which sees two thugs tie the family up, hold them at gunpoint and drug them, resulting in mom’s death. There are inconsistencies to this turn of events that even a little boy can see. The holes widen, as they always do in Coen brothers movies, as the various perps involved reveal themselves to be total nitwits.
Meanwhile, across the street, a George Clooney movie breaks out. The community drops the smiling act and goes from hostility (refusing to serve the “colored” family) to just-this-side-of-legal harassment to outright rioting, as their racist targets resist stoically.
Taken by itself, the clearly-Coen half of Suburbicon is a worthwhile film for fans. Oscar Isaac, in particular, adds an enjoyably cynical note as an unprincipled insurance adjuster who thinks there’s a scam going on, but has self-interest rather than justice in mind.
The clearly-Clooney half of the movie is perplexing. It’s not that he doesn’t “get” the Coens’ dry, trenchant wit. He’s performed it very well in the past – in O Brother, Where Art Thou and Hail, Caesar! for two.
But as a director (and a writer), he doesn’t seem to know how to approach a subject sideways. Both the decently Good Night And Good Luck and the slow-moving The Monuments Men were traditional in their presentation, the work of someone content to play major notes stylistically.
To their credit, Damon and Moore know which half of the movie they’re in and play their half of it with a steady unraveling of confidence from their cocksure start to the point where everything goes to pieces.
As for the prosaic Civil Rights drama, Burke, Westbrook and Espinoza ably provide the dignity demanded of them. But in the end, there seems to be no good reason for these two stories to be intertwined. It’s like those old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ads where an accidental collision causes chocolate to mix with peanut butter.
Except in this case, it would be, maybe, peanut butter and pickles.