Suburbicon was written by Joel and Ethan Coen, Grant Heslov and George Clooney, who also directed. In the credits, ampersands indicate that Joel and Ethan collaborated, and, independently, so did Grant and George. Which team originated the script and which worked it over hardly matters; the fact is, even with names as high-pedigree as these, there’s still such a thing as too many cooks.
Suburbicon gets off to a witty start with a clever, almost pitch-perfect pastiche of a promotional film for the movie’s eponymous suburb, a 1959 model of bourgeois Stepford perfection, lauding its manicured lawns, clean streets and wholesome, well-fed middle-class families who have migrated from all over these great United States and cheerfully urging us to bring our families to Suburbicon too.
After that impish opening, the wit dries up for quite a while. We are introduced to twin sisters Rose and Margaret (both played by Julianne Moore) and Rose’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose forces Nicky to play with the son of a new African American family in the neighborhood, a family whose presence will enrage the lily-white inhabitants of the town. This will eventually mushroom into a race riot in which these northern suburbanites make the Ku Klux Klan look positively polite. But it’s really just a subplot that gets out of hand. (I don’t think we can blame this narrative thread on the Coens; frankly, it has George Clooney’s smug limousine-liberal fingerprints all over it.)
The main plot gets underway with the low-key entrance of Matt Damon as Nicky’s father, Gardner Lodge, who gently wakes Nicky up with, “Son, some men are here; you have to come downstairs.”
It’s a home invasion by two men, fat (Glenn Fleshler) and skinny (Alex Hassell). They terrorize Nicky, his parents and Aunt Margaret, then tie them up and chloroform them. With Rose, the chloroform proves fatal.
When Nicky sees his father and Aunt Margaret refuse to identify the culprits in a police lineup, Suburbicon veers away from its hectoring lecture in Racial Tolerance 101 and back into undeniable Coen brothers territory. As the plot thickens, the wit of the opening sequence flickers briefly back to life with the arrival of Oscar Isaac as an insurance investigator who smells a rat; in his brilliantine, vulpine way, Isaac slyly evokes Edward G. Robinson’s Barton W. Keyes in Double Indemnity, albeit with a venal blackmailing edge. But alas, it’s only a tease; Isaac’s scenes are too short and too few, and Suburbicon lapses back into the humorless plod that director Clooney has established (evidently, when George Clooney isn’t preening in front of a camera he doesn’t know what to do with it).
Suburbicon has a surface gloss, but at heart (if that’s the right word) it’s a specimen of an unhappy genre—a bland satire.