“Suburbicon” is a dull attempt by writer and director George Clooney (“The Monuments Men,” “The Ides of March”) and co-writers Joel and Ethan Coen and Grant Heslov to pen a poignant diatribe against white supremacy in 1950s suburban America.
In the imaginary town of Suburbicon, the inhabitants are white, and their insular, racist opinions are grotesque. Cookie-cutter homes sit surrounded by meticulously manicured lawns, while each household’s clean-cut family roams the streets in pastel-colored clothing. But, just as this setting is established, it becomes apparent there’s something sinister at play against the pristine backdrop of suburbia, which entails both the threat of racism and an onslaught of murderous mobsters.
Suddenly, Suburbicon loses its friendly, safe status as its residents succumb to their racist beliefs. The arrival of African American family, Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (Leith M. Burke and Karmiah Westbrook) and their young son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), turns the neighborhood on its head. Residents flock to a riotous town hall meeting, where they contemplate ways to get rid of their new neighbors.
Soon, violence erupts on the Mayers’ front lawn, where angry residents attempt to frighten off the new family by screaming, lighting their car on fire and draping a Confederate flag over the windowsill. Disappointingly, the Mayers do little in the way of defending themselves. They become unemotional victims in their fight against their unwieldy, racist neighbors. Rather than providing the Mayers with unique and compelling characterization, the writers condemn them to the role of mute bystanders, thus contradicting the film’s aim to empower them. “Suburbicon” tries to peel back the layers of white American suburbia to reveal the nation’s unsavory, racist past, yet its shoddy structure prevents the film from reaching its full potential.
As racism swells on Suburbicon’s streets, ominous events unfold for local resident Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Two mobsters, played by Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell, burst into the family’s home during the night and murder Rose, leaving Nicky’s Aunt Margaret (also portrayed by Moore) to help take care of Nicky. Following Rose’s murder, the film takes on an even darker and undeniably bizarre tone as Mr. Lodge is forced to defend his family from the mob. The film’s violent sequences are somewhat alleviated by Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba), who helps his nephew survive the frightening events which take place inside his home.
As a murder mystery, the plot is frustratingly predictable. Its story about ruthless mobsters lacks originality, employing overused tropes and ineffective writing. Although the film’s acting performances aren’t noticeably weak, they also aren’t particularly noteworthy. For a film that relies on overdone mobster material for its plot, the lack of strong acting is especially troublesome.
While the film attempts to translate itself as a profound commentary on America’s racial tension, it misses the mark in demonstrating this through the use of thoughtful characters and unforeseen plot developments. It’s clear the chaos of the Lodge household is meant to counteract the harmlessness of the Mayers’ home, but by awkwardly combining these two narratives, the film loses its potential. The only interaction that occurs between the two families happens between the sons, although even this friendship doesn’t receive enough screen time to make it memorable. Perhaps the Coen brothers and Clooney would have created a better film by choosing between the two story ideas and paying closer attention to the script, which is mostly painfully dry and uninspiring.
While “Suburbicon” contains hints of promise, its clumsy storyline renders the film a confusing mess riddled with loose ends. Although the film’s set and costume designs are praiseworthy, Alexandre Desplat’s strangely comical musical score can only be called badly chosen at best. Evidently, the film is built upon awkward placements, and the end result is a noticeably contradictory work.
“Suburbicon” reveals itself to be a major misfire for Clooney’s directorial career as well as a tragic attempt at screenwriting. What may have seemed like a brilliant idea in the writer’s room translated onscreen as a weak attempt to create a timely and riveting tale about the darkness that lurks in the most unlikely places. Any film can deliver a tale about murder and mobsters, but only “Suburbicon” can make it seem like the most cliche film concept of all time.