Directed by George Clooney (“The Monuments Men”) and written by the Coen brothers (“Hail, Caesar!”), “Suburbicon” teases as a dark crime thriller that involves irrevocable actions and inevitable consequences, set in a 1950s suburban neighborhood. But despite its promising collection of Hollywood elites, “Suburbicon” is a messy, flat and directionless disappointment. The film opens with an introduction to the world of Suburbicon, a wholesome and white-washed Pleasantville saturated in a cheesy 1950s aesthetic. Tensions ensue when a Black family moves in, and the community is outraged by the breach of their WASP oasis. Flash to a crowd of white men foaming at the mouth at a town meeting, demanding the neighborhood upholds their right to maintain segregation. Right off the bat, the movie dives into racial tensions of the ’50s, white flight and the socioeconomic politics of integration.
Just as quickly as they appear, racial dynamics take a back seat as the film spotlights the Lodge family, led by Matt Damon (“The Great Wall”) as the white-collar patriarch Gardner in perhaps his worst role to date. The family also includes Julianne Moore (“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”) in a dual role, playing both Gardner’s paraplegic wife Rose and her twin sister Margaret. Here we see another example of the hot trend of actors playing off themselves, done compellingly by Ewan McGregor in “Fargo” and James Franco in “The Deuce.” Moore is an incredible actor who would have certainly been dynamic if able to really explore this dual role, but unfortunately, the movie immediately takes a drastic turn that negates this opportunity.
The crime narrative evolves in the film’s crucial scene, which happens abruptly and jarringly, and is messy in its immediacy. The rest of the film is just as chaotic and confusing. As a crime movie, the progression of the plot would have been interesting had it been eerie and psychological. Instead, Moore’s turn as Margaret comes off as superficially schizophrenic, or psychotic without the character depth the role demands. Damon is worse, playing the calculated patriarch as stiff and devoid of complexity. There is zero chemistry between him and Moore that makes their motivations wholly unbelievable. Maddeningly, Nicky understands the gravity of the film’s central conflict, but doesn’t do much about it; the film is riddled with plot holes that all involve Nicky being critically aware of his situation but somehow unable to voice his truth to anyone except the people that threaten him.
“Suburbicon” does have a splash of the Coen brothers charm that flickers to create a shadow of satire. A few scenes and lines of dialogue are kind of funny, smart and subversive, though fleeting. Near its end, the film gets so violent and bloody that is seems like a satirical crime thriller in the vein of Tarantino, though it never quite gets there. Oscar Isaac (“The Promise”) is fabulous as a cunning and slick insurance claim agent hot on the scent. Aesthetically, the film is strong, with some creative shots that make the movie visually interesting. The score by Alexandre Desplat (“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”) is also exciting and effective.
The film’s weaknesses though by far outweigh its strengths. Tonally, the movie is all over the place, trying to be tumultuous and eerie but ending up flat. The acting is just as one-dimensional. Because it has no real protagonist, the film just floats in an empty dead space that makes connecting with the characters impossible. Random moments in the movie are devoted to showing the neighborhood’s crazed harassment of the Black family, but this racial subplot is completely superfluous and irrelevant to the larger narrative. Because they get no lines, the family members become tokens rather than characters. The movie isn’t really about racial dynamics, so the inclusion of this subplot is extremely problematic and superficial.
After two endless hours, it’s hard to figure out what “Suburbicon” is actually about. Is it a social commentary on white flight and WASP racism? Is it a subversive satire of mob thrillers? Is it a cinematic success for Clooney and the Coen brothers? None of the above.