When four screenwriters are credited for one script, it usually indicates that a mess is nigh, no matter how lauded they are. George Clooney’s Suburbicon is no exception. Co-written by Clooney, Grant Heslov (The Ides of March), and Joel and Ethan Coen, the film is an untenable hybrid whose more successful half has the Coens’ ink-black comedic fingerprints all over it while trying to blend with a serious subplot about the harassment a black family faces when they move into the titular idyllic white suburb in 1959. Their connection is razor-thin.
The tonal 180s start at the beginning of the film and don’t let up until the credits roll. When the film opens, we see a promotional clip for Suburbicon, a neighborhood that allegedly is safer than city living. Soon after, its friendly mailman meets the new neighbor: Mrs. Meyers (Karimah Westbrook), an African-American woman who shockingly isn’t the help. Our main family, the Lodges, however, aren’t prejudiced and send their young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), to play ball with the Meyers boy, Andy (Tony Espinosa). This friendship proves largely superfluous to the plot.
The central story revolves around a break-in at the Lodge residence. The family—Nicky; his father, Gardner (Matt Damon); his mother, Rose (Julianne Moore); and his aunt Margaret (also Moore)—are tied up and chloroform’d by two thugs who take off with the family’s savings. First, though, they kill Rose. And before you can say “Nicky needs a mother,” Margaret has moved in and even dyes her hair Rose-platinum. Nothing suspicious about that.
Though the Coens’ style jumps out at you in nearly every sequence, their humor almost always falls flat. You sense that it’s meant to be funny when, for instance, every person Gardner runs into when he returns to work says, “Sorry for your loss,” but considering this is pretty standard behavior, it’s unlikely you’ll chuckle. And maybe it’s supposed to be absurd when an older lady interviewed by the local news says that the neighborhood was safe until the Meyerses moved in—and, to be fair, it is—but it’s hardly a laugh after the terrible things the innocent family went through, including increasingly rowdy crowds outside their home.
The details behind Rose’s murder turn out to be less than novel—in fact, the twist is so stale it’s shocking. Only the performances and the occasional joke that works keep this leisurely film chugging along, wheezing most of the way. Moore is particularly delicious as the caring auntie who suddenly stops being so nice, alternately wearing her Stepford smile and “eat your goddamn vegetables” grimace. Damon’s turn gets more layered as the plot escalates, at one point sitting on a chair as if he were constipated and the chair were actually a toilet made of nails. But the film is seen through the eyes of Nicky, so it rests on Jupe’s shoulders. And though he probably won’t be the subject of any For Your Consideration campaigns, his Nicky is sufficient at projecting fear, bafflement, and wiles.
In the end, though, you’re left wondering what Clooney et al. wanted the film to be. A murder mystery a la Fargo? A satire about the faux innocence of life in 1950s suburbia? A commentary about race relations and misplaced rage? Suburbicon tries to be all of these things, and consequently succeeds at none of them.
Suburbicon opens Friday at Landmark Atlantic Plumbing Cinema and AMC Loews Georgetown 14.