It’s tempting to criticize George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” as two films that never quite coalesce into one complete whole, which is partially true. But that might give the impression that either film works on their own, which is false. This startling misfire is a tonal disaster from start to finish, whether residing in the dark comedy that retains echoes of the Coen brothers’ original script or in the more earnestly inspirational true story of a black family who gets run out of white America. Other than when the movie appears to levitate for a brief period while Oscar Isaac is on-screen, the dull “Suburbicon” lacks in witty dialogue, interesting characters, or even visual flourishes. It is as flat as the well-manicured lawns in the idyllic neighborhood that gives it a name.
Two stories compete for screen time but never really intertwine in the script by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who developed a script also still-credited to Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, so we’ll tackle them separately. In the one that’s likely to remind people of recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere, a black family moves into the until-then-white Suburbicon, and instantly faces backlash. Based on the true story of what happened to William (Leith M. Burke) and Daisy Meyers (Karimah Westbrook) in Levittown in August 1957, this half of the movie feels like underdeveloped manipulation. We never get to know William at all—I’m not sure he even has a line—but we see Daisy being told milk costs $20 at the local store and the whole family getting harassed by mobs outside their home every night. The mobs get louder and more violent as the film progresses to the tragic inevitable.
While the Meyers’ family is being targeted merely for the color of their skin, true evil is going down in the white house next door. And one has to assume this is Clooney’s point—that murderous white people are getting away with it while communities are blinded by racist anger—even if that doesn’t seem like enough on which to really thematically hang a film. While the Meyers just want to live the lives promised them in the Suburbicon brochure, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is having his family torn apart. One average night, two men (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) break into the Lodge house and chloroform the whole family, including Gardner’s wife (Julianne Moore) and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Mrs. Lodge dies but is quickly replaced in the family unit by her twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore, of course). Nicky suspects something strange is going on here, the killers come by Gardner’s office with demands, and Oscar Isaac shows up after about an hour as a suspicious insurance investigator.
The dividing line between the Coen film and the Clooney/Heslov film is crystal clear, and one can see the foundation of a black noir Coen comedy with a sense of humor not unlike “Fargo” and “Burn After Reading.” That kind of comedy is tough to pull off tonally and Clooney the director doesn’t have the rhythm to do so. “Suburbicon” is shockingly unfunny, mostly due to the leaden, shapeless direction of it all but also performances from Damon and Moore that never seem to settle on a tone or character. They’re lifeless. Maybe purposefully? As a commentary on dull white middle America? That’s possible, but not entertaining in any way. Only Isaac (and Fleshler a little bit) have any energy. It feels like he just came from the set of a better, funnier, more interesting movie.
Part of the tonal problem here is one of deeply unlikable characters, something that the Coens excel at but other directors, even collaborators of theirs, have difficult managing. Gardner Lodge isn’t a memorable anti-hero—he’s kind of just a loathsome creep. Almost as if they recognize that, Clooney & Heslov try to tell the story through the eyes of Nicky, but that shift doesn’t quite work either. This is the story of a kid learning his parents aren’t perfect and all of his neighbors are violent racists. Without any humor or interesting characters to keep the film entertaining, that’s a tough premise for a movie. And it’s tonally impossible to balance. It makes “Suburbicon” a comedy with almost no laughs and a drama with no depth.
The movie even starts to grate aesthetically with an overdone score by Alexandre Desplat and design elements that fetishize ‘50s America in an incomplete way, stranding the movie between parody and realism. Even the great Robert Elswit’s work here feels uninspired. Of course, it all comes back to the flaws of a director unable to figure out what story he’s trying to convey or an intriguing way to tell it. “Suburbicon” doesn’t so much tell two stories that never coalesce into one—it doesn’t tell any interesting story at all.