You know that combination of racial tension and socioeconomic despair that permeates our suburbs today? It’s been going on for decades.
That’s the backdrop for Suburbicon, an ambitious but uneven period piece that combines suburban satire, low-key crime thriller, and coming-of-age drama. George Clooney’s latest directorial outing lacks the persuasive punch it needs to achieve its desired contemporary resonance.
Taking place in 1959, the film weaves together parallel stories from Suburbicon, an ldyllic, bustling subdivision that boasts diversity in its marketing — except when it includes potential minorities.
So when the black Meyers family moves in, it causes an uprising in the otherwise wholesome neighborhood to which Gardner (Matt Damon) and his family seem immune.
That’s because they’ve got bigger issues involving a visit from mobsters to collect on a debt. The subsequent death of Gardner’s wheelchair-bound wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), leads to talk of insurance fraud once an investigator (Oscar Isaac) coming poking around with suspicious questions for both Gardner and Rose’s twin sister (also played by Moore) who’s now part of the family.
Meanwhile, Gardner’s young son (Noah Jupe) handles the chaos pretty well, just wanting to play baseball after befriending Andy Meyers (Tony Espinosa) while his parents are the target of persecution.
Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov reworked an original screenplay by the Coen brothers that generally feels like a lesser effort, only hinting at the moral complexity that should be front and center.
The script relegates the Meyers to subplot status, which was likely intentional as a method of showing how easily public outcry over the most trivial of matters can obscure the real issues troubling a community. Yet saddled with such anonymity, the protests feel like mere background noise that distract from, rather than enhance, the primary storyline.
The film is visually striking, with its vibrant re-creation of middle America at the time — the exact location is never revealed — that colorfully emphasizes perfectly manicured green lawns and perpetually sunny dispositions of neighbors toward one another, with the squeaky-clean happiness concealing a dark underbelly.
Incorporating elements of noir amid the generally sardonic tone, Suburbicon manages some moments of scattered amusement. However, although the satirical targets are broad, the film is both muddled and obvious, lacking the depth to distinguish itself among the other cookie-cutter cinematic houses in Anytown, USA.