After starring in several Coen Brothers comedies, actor/writer-director George Clooney strives to make one of his very own, helming Suburbicon. The crime-comedy began as a Coen Brother’s script nearly 20 years ago. Then Clooney and his writing partner, Grant Heslov, gave the draft a makeover, working in a true story of suburban racism they’d hoped to spin into a compelling biopic. But the result is a jarring combination that goes together as well as peanut butter and poison.
Set in the titular 1950s suburb, Suburbicon focuses on two families who live just across the backyard from each other. On one side lies the Lodge clan, whose happy-enough home life is made hellish once intruders murder momma Rose (Julianne Moore). Devastated by her death, Rose’s young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), begins to suspect his father (Matt Damon) and Aunt Maggie (also Moore), both of whom know more about that terrible night than they’re letting on. This thread splits to follow each of the survivors through a daffy and deranged murder mystery that’s solution is pretty damn obvious if you’re paying the least bit of attention, or if you’ve seen the Coen’ 1996 hit Fargo.
Across the lawn lives the Mayers family, who are the first Black family to move into this all-white community. At the film’s start, their arrival is announced door-to-door by a flabbergasted mailman. Soon, mobs form that gawk at the house like it’s a television unfurling winning lottery numbers. Ignorant next-door neighbors erect fences so their children won’t see young Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa) playing in his yard. As Mrs. Mayers (Karimah Westbrook) calmly hangs her laundry on the line, seething bigots cling to the fence, banging drums and snarling, hungry for a reaction. Their racist rage will boil over into a riot, complete with broken glass, fire, and a Confederate flag hung upon their carnage. But while these fools torment the Mayers mercilessly, they utterly ignore the violence and horror going on just across the lawn.
By comparing the wicked Lodges and the modest Mayers, Clooney suggests the former deserve the town’s attention and ire, not the latter. However, the Lodges are given the bulk of the screentime, leaving the Mayers with a handful of scenes and maybe 10 lines between the three of them. (I’m fairly certain Mr. Mayers utters not a single word, even as he salvages his property from the burned out shell of his car, and snatches down that Confederate flag.) Their ultimate role in the film is so small they barely make appearance in the film’s trailer. In sequence after sequence, Clooney rolls out the inner lives and complexities of the Lodges. The Mayers get no such consideration, and are granted little identity beyond first names.
It’s as if Clooney thinks having any Black characters is enough to make his point, so gives these barely sketched figures nothing to do but be silent or polite in the face of white supremacy. It is galling disservice to the Mayers, and the real-life family on which they are based. The film argues the people of Suburbicon should look to who their neighbors really are, but then never bothers to show its audience who the Mayers are. Instead, Clooney offers well intentioned but completely tone-deaf White Liberalism that strives to be “woke” but falls woefully short, treating its Black characters as stark symbols instead of flesh-and-blood people.
Even overlooking its sloppy political statements, Suburbicon is a stunning disaster. Damon feels wildly miscast, always awkward as this sketchy suburbanite. Moore is wasted on wan dialogue about love and Aruba. And with a scared child at its center, the script makes it near-impossible to relish in the Coen-styled dark humor. When a sequence that puts Nicky in life-threatening peril is blithely followed by the ludicrous image of a blood-splattered man furiously pedaling along on a child’s bike, it’s more head-scratching than laugh-inducing.
Thankfully, Oscar Isaac barges into the film in the thick of the second act and brings with him a breath of exhilarating lunacy. With a vile mustache and a crooked grin, he goes toe-to-toe with Damon and Moore, and for a moment you can see what this film might have been if it weren’t so thoroughly terrible. But all too soon, he is gone. And we are left to wallow once more in tedious scenes that strain to reach funny or poignant, but can’t get out from the weight of Clooney’s heavy handedness.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). She’s a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com