Review: 'Suburbicon', Part Crime Comedy, Part Race Drama, Mostly Disappointing

Note: when the Coens don't direct their own scripts, expect that there's a good reason for it. Just based on the title and the filmmakers' sensibilities you probably have a good idea of what Suburbicon is: the Coens' dark take on suburban comedy. And that would be true, and maybe if it were them behind the camera the film might have turned out in a more coherent fashion than it does with their pal George Clooney at the helm. Clooney has struggled with black comedy before and continues to here; his traditional style of direction simply isn't built for it, but what is most disappointing is that Suburbicon could have been two really good separate movies.

Suburbicon stars Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge, a classic 1950s Dad living in an idyllic, lily-white neighborhood where you might expect to see an apple pie cooling in every window. The town is turned upside down by the arrival of a black family into their pristine neighborhood, causing a rapid fire town meeting where its decided to basically make their lives Hell. A massive fence will be erected to shield those precious white eyes from those dirty blacks, and that's nothing compared to the 24-hour rioting going on right outside their door. In the midst of all this, Gardner and his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore), their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe), and Rose's twin Margaret are held captive by a couple of violent goons with an axe to grind. Is it because Nicky was seen playing with his black neighbor? In any case, it all ends with Rose's death, and soon thereafter Margaret moves in because, y'know, "the boy needs a mother." 


Of course it's fishy. This is the Coen Brothers and everybody has a corrupt angle to play. If that were all there was to it, Suburbicon would have been fine.

The screenplay is credited to the Coens, Clooney, and his writing partner Grant Heslov. Okay, fine. But Clooney and Heslov's contribution is basically to shoehorn in this sobering racial drama on top of the Coens' crime caper, based on a completely different story they were writing independently. The two approaches hardly ever gel, and to say the racism aspect is underserved would be a massive understatement.  The family, known as the Meyers', aren't really characters here. Sure, Nicky goes out and plays catch with the son every now and then when Clooney wants to make a nod towards racial harmony, but that's all they are. Representations.

Sadly, the film is much better when it focuses on the Lodges and the quicksand of lies and murder Gardner finds himself sinking into. Gardner's predicament will feel familiar to anyone who has a passing knowledge of the Coens' canon. The body count stacks up in increasingly ridiculous and gruesome ways. And it should come as no surprise the film excels when it allows for comical subversions of the era. Gardner, seemingly the model of stoicism and masculinity, is a nervous wreck humiliated with broken glasses and the occasional ride on a child's Schwinn bicycle. Oscar Isaac has the best 5 minutes of the movie as a slimy insurance investigator, back when families actually knew the name of their insurance agents, who thinks there's something fishy about the Lodges' recent claim. And there's something precious about Margaret, who relishes a little too much getting to play mother and wife, while dreaming vacantly about trips to the protectorate of Aruba. Aruba comes up a lot. Margaret's role isn't given enough space to really grow, but we've seen Moore play up the 1950s housewife so many times already we can fill in those spaces on our own.

Somewhere lost in the middle of Suburbicon is a really funny crime story, and a potentially powerful one about racism. Put together they make for a watchable, if mediocre entry for both the Coens and Clooney.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5