Like a pub-rock cover band, “Suburbicon” can be bluntly effective when playing the old hits. Sure, it’s not the real deal, but if you get into the music, overlook a couple bum notes, and let the pints do their work, you can reasonably groove along. And that’s most certainly the case with George Clooney’s latest outing behind the camera, which finds the prominent actor/director/international megastar in full-on chameleon mode, aping the Coens, Hitchcock, and Billy Wilder to modestly satisfying effect.
The film gets a bit shakier when it lets its own voice crack through.
Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov took a long-shelved Coen Brothers’ script and grafted it onto another project , the story of racial harassment in the ’50s model suburb of Levittown. The seams certainly show, as “Suburbicon” is basically two concurrent stories interwoven by the fact that both take place on the same block.
One follows the Myers family — husband William (Leith M. Burke), wife Daisy (Karimah Westbrook), and son Andy (Tony Espinosa) — the first black family to move into film’s titular utopian suburb. Their arrival does not go unnoticed, as the area’s angry white denizens (deeply concerned about the neighborhood’s safety and security, cough) begin an escalating campaign of intimidation, protest, and outright violence.
Meanwhile, “Fargo” is happening next door as a fever-dream remounting that throws in doppelganger blondes, James M. Cain-ian insurance fraud, and splattery, cartoonish violence (well, “Fargo” did have that). This plot follows the Lodges — Gardner (Matt Damon), Rose (Julianne Moore), and son Nicky (Noah Jupe) — who suffer a grave misfortune when a couple of musclemen break into the house to collect a debt and end up killing the wheelchair-bound Rose in the process. But no matter, because there’s her healthy twin sister Margaret (also Moore, of course) who’s happy to dye her hair and take Rose’s place at the table.
Things devolve into typically Coenesque mayhem from there.
Neither plots feels particularly fresh and of the two, the racial subplot is certainly less engaging. Clooney tackles the Myers’ story head-on, starting with their arrival in the neighborhood (the friendly mailman’s smile drains when he realizes Mrs. Myers is not the maid) and following through the angry town meetings, the aggressions big and small, the rising neighborhood pressure, and the inevitable violent release. His earnestly laudable, heart-in-the-right-place direction is designed to elicit reserved outrage scene-for-scene-for-scene, inspiring audiences to shake their heads and tsk-tsk about how bad it was back then. Hollywood can only tackle racism from the safe confines of the past, and thankfully society’s done a lot of growing since the mid-’50s (spoiler alert: that’s up for debate). It’s not bad filmmaking, just blunt.
While no more original in story beats, the starrier noir-riff benefits from a slightly tilted approach. For the most part, the plot unfurls from Nicky’s perspective, and so we enter dearly familiar Coen-land from an unfamiliar, child-like vantage point. We’re hoisted into the story with the young boy, woken from his slumber by the intruders at the beginning of the film, and keep his point of view as they chloroform him to sleep. Damon and Moore keep the pitch as hapless Coen schemers, but we’re always a step behind their machinations, a piece of information short. This child’s eye view somehow gives the film a pass even though a number of story strands don’t connect, and the final plot, once revealed, doesn’t quite make sense.
But that’s no matter, because we’re here to gorge on a grab bag of Coen-y pleasures and indeed there are many. Oscar Isaac shows up wearing Jon Polito’s mustache and does that Oscar Isaac thing of being the best part of any film that he’s in. Here he’s an insurance adjustor investigating the Lodge’s wrongful death claim, and he shares two delicious scenes with Moore and Damon. Another bit finds Nicky spooked by an unfamiliar cry from the basement, and so he descends the stairs knife in hand only to be confronted by a laugh-out-loud visual punch line directly cribbed from “Burn After Reading.” And sure, you can grouse that Joel and Ethan did it better and did it first, but that doesn’t change the fact that dammit, the gag works. The songs still have punch; that’s why there’s a cover band!
An undeniably entertaining watch, “Suburbicon” stumbles when it tries to recycle effective old ingredients into something new. Clooney is trying make a statement about the dual undercurrents of racism and craven personal hypocrisy that lurked under that perfect ’50s façade, but the tonal variance does his message a major disservice. Watching an innocent boy cower in his house as angry neighbors spew epithets and wave Confederate flags is harrowing; watching a chubby, bloodied Matt Damon tricycle away from a burning car is hilarious.
“Suburbicon” offers an avowedly anti-segregation message, but it teaches us that some things aren’t meant to mix.
“Suburbicon” premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival. It will open in theaters on October 27.