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Suburbicon shows what happens when a Coen brothers script goes very wrong

George Clooney fails to deliver the biting indictment of white America he promises.

Matt Damon in Suburbicon
Matt Damon in Suburbicon
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

A movie about white, suburban America burning itself alive while blaming its self-immolation on the black neighbors down the street seems like it could be great. And the Coen brothers wrote the screenplay, you say? What could go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. Suburbicon is recognizably Coenesque. It has an absurdist premise and a familiar-feeling Fargo variant of a plot: Nice family guy plots to off his wife for the insurance money, and then things go sideways.

Here, though, the screenplay is in the hands of George Clooney, who along with his regular collaborator Grant Heslov shares a screenwriting credit with the Coens. Clooney’s previous efforts as a director (Good Night and Good Luck, The Monuments Men) often revisit bits of history to see what they have to say to us today.

Clooney loves old movies, and it shows stylistically when he makes them — their pacing, editing, and actors’ line delivery feels more from Hollywood’s Golden Age than its present. And that would in theory be a good match for Suburbicon, which is set in a cheery planned suburban community in the 1950s.

Alas: Something in Suburbicon went sideways on the way to the big screen. It makes a run at cleverness, trying to be a dark screwball commentary on America’s race problem. But instead it’s just a spectacular flop.

Suburbicon is two movies in one, and it shows

Most movies can survive a middling score, a misguided performance, or an unimaginative premise. What they can’t survive is a bad screenplay. And a disastrously double-minded screenplay is the root of Suburbicon’s problems.

There are two movies happening in Suburbicon. One is the Coen-style plot, about a wholesome family man named Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his young son Nicky (Noah Jupe), his blonde wife Rose (Julianne Moore), and his brunette sister-in-law Maggie (also Julianne Moore). Rose is in a wheelchair after a car accident, and Aunt Maggie is around frequently to help out with the housework and look after Nicky.

Julianne Moore and Matt Damon in Suburbicon
Julianne Moore and Matt Damon in Suburbicon

Then one night, thieves break into the house and chloroform the whole family, including Nicky, who wakes up in the hospital to discover that Rose has died. Aunt Maggie moves into the house full-time, while her brother Mitch (Gary Basaraba) tells his nephew to call any time he needs him.

Nicky is smarter than his father gives him credit for, and he smells a rat, especially when Gardner and Maggie fail to identify the robbers in a lineup. But the whole thing starts unraveling when an insurance adjuster (Oscar Isaac, who is the best part of this film by far) stops by the house to investigate the claim Gardner has filed after Rose’s death.

That’s the first Suburbicon, and it’s supposed to be pretty ridiculous, a tale of crime that does not pay and the swaggering idiots who try to pull it off anyway. The very beginning of the film — an ad for a planned community called Suburbicon, full of nice, moral, white families — sets it up as a fable; Suburbicon isn’t located anywhere in particular, and it doesn’t have an origin or an impetus for being. It’s a stand-in for the most instantly recognizable version of the American Dream, with the picket fence and the driveway and the happy family just waiting to be skewered gleefully by filmmakers half a century later.

Someone seems to have thought this premise wasn’t “important” enough, though. So they elected to combine it with a second story about racial integration in suburban communities.

Again — not a terrible idea. (And for the record, rumor has it that a version of the racial integration plot was present in the Coens’ original script.) But “heavy handed” is too generous of a description for how it’s carried out.

Suburbicon’s serious secondary plot comes off as an afterthought

In this secondary plot, a black family, the Meyers, move into the house next door to the Lodges. But they quickly begin to suffer the indignities and anger of Suburbicon’s white residents, who are vocally appalled that they now have to live near those people, shouting en masse at a town meeting and not masking their racism in any way. The Meyers in nearly every way live a lifestyle that is identical to their neighbors’, at least outwardly. Mrs. Meyers (Karimah Westbrook) wears the same dresses as the white ladies next door, and little Andy (Tony Espinosa) plays baseball.

But it doesn’t matter. The neighbors begin to put up fences so they don’t have to see the Meyers. A crowd — small at first, but increasingly larger and louder — surround the house, yelling, beating on drums, and eventually turning violent in indignation that the Meyers would even believe they could live among them. “Remember what happened in Baltimore!” they say. And as the strange occurrences start to happen at the Lodges’ house, Suburbicon residents remark among themselves that nothing like this ever happened before that family moved to town.

Matt Damon in Suburbicon
Matt Damon in Suburbicon

The film cuts in real footage of white women from the mid-century talking about how they want the freedom to choose to live with other white people, which is obviously intended to remind us that what is happening in Suburbicon isn’t fantasy. It happened. A lot. The images of crowds of angry white neighbors seem lifted from images of crowds during efforts to integrate public schools and other places.

The idea that emerges is that while the crowds of white neighbors gather to holler at the Meyers, there’s actual violence and murder going on right next door, and nobody knows. Look! the film seems to say. While you’re fixated on the straw man threat of the people who don’t look like you, you’re blowing yourselves apart. Fix your own house.

Great message, but lousy execution. What actually happens is that a murderous, bloody screwball plot happens in one house; just across the yard, a hollering crowd of angry racists threatens the Meyers’ life. The latter plot is minimized in service of the former, and while the intent is clear — the Lodges’ treachery becomes even more absurd by contrast with the Meyers’ actual trouble — in execution, it just feels like the second story is being sidelined. The black people are here to serve the white story, again.

Perhaps in surer directorial hands, this could work; if you squint, you can make out the outlines of that better film. Here, it just feels like all subtext has been converted not so much to text as to some kind of super-text, a message rendered in blinding neon, and a too-easy one at that. We all — or at least a lot of us — recognize the disgusting display of the racists as bad and evil. But Suburbicon is set in the suburban post-war boom, and that feels like an especially cheap shot. Racism is alive and well today; we’ve been watching it unfold on the news and on Twitter within recent weeks. So it’s not all that useful to point to a fictionalized past and sneer.

Suburbicon wants to be a fable and a comedy, a screed and an entertaining indictment. Instead, it’s a baffling bummer, a misfire of epic proportions. And that’s a shame. The idea at its core deserves a better movie than this one.

Suburbicon played at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in US theaters on October 27.

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