Review: Glib Laughs and Race Hate in ‘Suburbicon’
“Suburbicon,” a jaundiced, hard-sell comedy, wants you to know that the American dream was always a crock. This may not be news, even in the movie industry, which loves white-picket fences in principle but remains a gated community in fact. Still, every so often a filmmaker restates the case for the prosecution. The latest complainant is George Clooney, who in directing “Suburbicon” has turned back the clock to the 1950s for a story about the good old American days of prosperity and prejudice, of race hate and white people who are always just one clenched fist away from becoming a mob.
The title refers to the ticky-tacky Potemkin suburb where it all goes down. You know the place: It’s as American as apple pie and quiet desperation. It’s the post-World War II wasteland with the identical homes, lawns and faces that has been grist for critique and caricature, novels and movies, ever since suburbs were invented. In “Little Boxes,” a 1960s lament about conformity, Pete Seeger warbles about that sprawling wasteland, where all the “boys go into business and marry and raise a family.” That these little boxes look a lot like coffins gives his song the tenor of a dirge, one that “Suburbicon” delivers anew with cruel laughter, violent enthusiasm and acres of dark-wood paneling.
Matt Damon plays Gardner Lodge, some kind of executive who has his own office and secretary at work and a wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), and son, Nicky (a good, appealing Noah Jupe), at home. It all looks neat and tidy, especially Suburbicon, a planned community dotted with houses as square as Gardner’s sack suits and yards that look as if they’d been landscaped using a compass and protractor. There are a few midcentury modern flourishes, but the sheer, overriding, bland whiteness underscores that this entire world has been drawn along the antiseptic lines of a period sitcom like “Father Knows Best” rather than a riposte like “Mad Men.”
The story opens just as the Mayerses, Suburbicon’s first black family, move into the area, an event the neighborhood treats as a collective home invasion. Women whisper and stare, men sputter and rage, and soon all their white faces have gone red. Before long, unneighborly clusters begin gathering around the family’s home, edging around the perimeter and transforming it into a kind of stage. And then the fences go up, and the clusters develop into a pack. The whispers morph into jeers, and the progressively, dangerously impatient crowd howls for the show to begin. Any resemblance to the audience watching “Suburbicon” is as intentional as it is obvious.
Mr. Clooney, who wrote the movie with Grant Heslov — reworking a script by Ethan and Joel Coen — has embraced symmetry as his guiding principle. Everything looks picture perfect in Suburbicon, and the story is so ordered that at first the movie seems to be a tale of two families, twinned peoples whose only sons dress alike and play catch in yards that face each other as if mirrored images. That there aren’t any movie stars in the Mayers family, though, is an early sign that all isn’t quite as balanced as it seems. Karimah Westbrook has a few good moments as Mrs. Mayers, but Leith Burke, as Mr. Mayers, barely says a word. Tony Espinosa has more to do as the couple’s son, Andy.
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Still, the families are further aligned when, shortly after the Mayerses move in, two thugs invade the Lodge home. Except instead of simply robbing the family, they kill someone, violence that shifts the story’s focus to the Lodges. It’s a lurching turn as well as a missed opportunity. The story of the Mayers family is grounded in the history that clearly appeals to Mr. Clooney — it’s based on events that took place in Levittown, Pa., in 1957 — but what happens to the Lodges plays like one of the Coens’ signature Looney Tunes as written by James M. Cain. By the time Oscar Isaac swoops in with a fedora and a wolfish grin, the movie has become a bludgeoning pastiche.
Mr. Clooney gets some things right in “Suburbicon,” including visually and with his two appealing child actors, who together give the movie a heartbeat. As the story grows grimmer and pulpier, he plays with different registers of realism, deepens the shadows and narrows his focus, using tight close-ups and all the wood paneling to box the characters in. But he skimps on the adult characters’ inner lives, and, once the narrative weight shifts to the Lodges, he never finds the tone that balances the movie’s sincerity with its nihilism. One problem is that Mr. Clooney seems to believe in happy endings, however hard-earned, while the Coens — whose presence hovers throughout — are the kind of pessimists who laugh in the dark. The tones and worldviews don’t jibe.
The greater, graver flaw, though, the one that empties “Suburbicon” out and turns it into a mannerist exercise, is that the movie reproduces the inequality it’s ostensibly outraged by. This has less to do with star power and everything to do with emphasis and interest. It’s clear even from her few scenes, including a showdown with a racist, that Ms. Westbrook could have made Mrs. Mayers a force if given the chance. Yet despite the parallel editing, despite the scenes of the mob plaguing the Mayerses — and the images of a black mother, father and son who are sometimes seen but say so little — their terror isn’t about them. It’s about how badly it makes white people look.
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