What good is any film critic who can’t offer a contrary opinion once in a while? The advance word on Suburbicon has been downright poisonous despite its star power and its provenance as a Coen brothers’ script from the 1980s rejiggered by director/co-writer George Clooney. I’m not going to argue that this is any sort of masterpiece, but this nasty, nihilistic little crime thriller does give you the pleasure of watching a whole bunch of unappetizing people get their just desserts, and I do find that to be pleasing on a primal level.
Set in the 1950s, the movie opens with little Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) being awakened by his father Gardner (Matt Damon), a vice president of a medium-sized firm. Two burglars (Steven M. Porter and Alex Hassell) have broken into their handsomely appointed house, and they proceed to tie up Nicky, his dad, Nicky’s mother Rose, and her identical twin sister Margaret (both played by Julianne Moore). As they’re all being chloroformed, Nicky watches the robbers intentionally give his mother an overdose before he himself goes under. A few days later, with Rose dead and Margaret having moved in, Nicky is puzzled when he spots his mother’s killers in a police lineup, only for his dad and his aunt to insist that they don’t recognize the men. The kid gets to work rigging up a barricade for his bedroom, because he’s smarter than any of the adults in the movie.
If that’s not enough, the community’s first African-American family moves into the house adjoining the Lodges’, and within hours an angry white mob gathers round, resorting to increasingly violent tactics to try to drive them out. Yes, underneath this prosperous suburb’s well-manicured surfaces lie festering moral cankers yadda yadda yadda. This part of the movie is welded onto the original script from one of Clooney’s own planned projects about Levittown, Pa. The characters are named Meyers (Leith Burke and Karimah Westbrook), similar to the real-life people who integrated Levittown, and the mob violence that erupted when they did is fairly close to what we see in the film.
That historical sidebar is interesting in itself, but it fits uneasily beside the grubby crime in the main storyline, and other movies as varied as Blue Velvet, Hairspray, and Far From Heaven have all delved deeper into the rot of mid-century lily-white suburbia. Even the main plot itself isn’t handled with much dexterity. Clooney errs with pacing and tone in the first half, and a cop (Jack Conley) drops by and seems to cotton onto Gardner and Margaret’s scheme, only to disappear and never be heard from again. The director does have an affinity for bumbling black comedy (watch his 2002 directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind for further proof), but a thriller like this one, which collapses in on its plotters, works best with a director who can fold all the corners neatly. That’s much more the Coens than it is Clooney.
The movie does pick up momentum in the second half, as Gardner and Margaret’s badly planned intrigue starts to come undone. Oscar Isaac smashes into the film for a few delightful minutes as a crooked insurance investigator who can’t stop talking about how smart he is. (He does sniff out the murder conspiracy, sight unseen, so he’s entitled to a boast or two.) Newcomer Jupe does well, too, with the boy’s silent “Oh crap, I can’t trust any of the grown-ups I live with” vibe. As the body count rises, the ingenuity with which these dimwitted criminals manage to snuff themselves is quite striking. Unable to stand next to classics of this subgenre, Suburbicon is a minor film, probably irredeemably so , and yet it sent me out of the theater chuckling evilly to myself.
Starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. Directed by George Clooney. Written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, and Grant Heslov. Rated R.