If the Coen Brothers don’t follow through with a script of their own, there’s probably a good reason. That’s the take-away after fighting through the confusion and frustration of what just happened in Suburbicon.
The script, originally written in 1986 by the Coens, then reworked by George Clooney (accompanied by Grant Heslov), is at the heart of what’s wrong with this film. But there are plenty of problems elsewhere too. That’s a shame, because enough really nice moments are scattered throughout -- including a scene-stealing turn by Oscar Isaac as well as a fairly interesting murder mystery -- to make us wonder, “what if.” What if George Clooney hadn’t directed? What if the Coens had? We’ll never know the answers, but it is resoundingly clear that in the hands of Clooney, this thing is a tone-deaf mess.
Suburbicon tells two different stories, each set in the blissful serenity of one of those post-war suburban cookie-cutter neighborhoods that became popular during the Eisenhower ‘50s. One thread involves the disruption of that peace when a black family moves into the neighborhood, while the other begins with a terrifying home invasion in which a wife and mother (both played by Julianne Moore) are killed by a couple of bumbling mobsters, while the husband (Matt Damon) and son (Noah Jupe) survive.
The first thread has roots in reality as it is based on the actual integration of 1953 Levittown, Pennsylvania, which was a racially-restricted community at the time. That exclusivity remained in place for many years until the Supreme Court struck it down a decade or so later. While working on a film about this event, Clooney recalled having read for a Coen Brothers satire called Suburbicon. Clooney’s film (d)evolved into its current iteration that carries forward those whacky yet familiar hints of queasy dark humor we’ve come to expect from the Coens, while straining under the weight of its heavy-handed statements about racism in America.
As the dual-threaded plot leaps and lunges forward, we get the idea that there’s a cleverly-disguised grand plan at play that will masterfully tie these two disparate stories together. But that never happens. We continue, swapping back and forth between the two threads, each visit even more tonally uneven than the previous. Even the murder tale can’t hold a consistent mood within itself as it eventually morphs into a goof-ball cops and robbers yarn, wrapped around an insurance scam, tinged with incestuous-y betrayal.
What if Clooney and Heslov had instead decided to focus on either the mob story or the social commentary? What if they had managed to make both work? Spinning an engaging and clever murder mystery is difficult. Successfully pulling off biting socio-political satire is even harder. Pulling off both? Not here.
However, stepping forward through the mess of chaos and disorder, is Oscar Isaac as an insurance adjuster who shows up at the door armed with plenty of suspicions and loaded questions regarding the details and timelines of the home invasion. This one scene is nearly worth the price of admission alone as Isaac’s character morphs from cordial patience to irritable suspicion. He’s severely underutilized but he makes the most of what he’s given.
Then there’s Moore as the meek housewife (and sister-in-law) who harbors hidden talents while Damon steps in perfectly as the vanilla mid-century father who may be leading a double life. They play their roles perfectly with a passive poise that masks a seedy underbelly. Clooney drenches his film in a beautifully-rendered Mad Men-esque wholesomeness that ties everything together -- at least visually.
By the time Clooney finally gets around to the point he’s trying to make, we’ve figured out that it won’t be as clever or as gratifying as he thinks it is. Nor does it really tell us anything we didn’t already know. Suburbicon is, at times, a fascinating look in the mirror and a shocking revelation of how much we haven’t changed as a society, while at others, a deliciously vile yet totally provocative black comedy. But as the treachery, deception, lies and bodies begin to pile up, we never feel totally vested in the characters, the story, or its outcome. It’s all just a loosely tied-together string of pleasurable moments and frustrating “what ifs?”
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “R” by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.