Throughout the muddled, ambitious black satire Suburbicon, produced and directed by George Clooney from a script he co-authored with Oscar winners Grant Heslov (Argo) and the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel (No Country for Old Men), I kept asking the same question: “What’s the point?” Now I know. It’s A Raisin in the Sun Meets The Donna Reed Show.
Part social melodrama, part violent crime drama and part send-up of family values gone haywire, it’s a curiosity that stubbornly fails to come alive until it’s almost over, and then it’s too late. The film follows parallel narratives about American bigotry (inspired by the heinous events of 1957 when the arrival of the first black family in Levittown, Pennsylvania caused a race riot) and the trashing of the Technicolor American Dream envisioned in countless superficial air-conditioned 1950s Hollywood comedies. Told in blunted styles that never quite meld, it’s an ugly picture of American hate, corruption and greed that attempts to shed insight on the pathetic human condition. In a town constructed with the idea of affordable prosperity for all and malice for none, 60,000 white, middle-class Protestant residents as content as Disney cows enjoy a thriving shopping mall where everybody buys the same products with the same credit cards. They have a first-rate hospital, lime Jell-O green lawns with two-car garages and the pride of being part of a town of great diversity (of which no evidence is visible). Like Pleasantville, a vastly superior 1997 film by Gary Ross about a brother and sister who were magically transported through their TV set into the mediocre world of a television sitcom, Suburbicon depicts an idyllic cookie-cutter village where everything seems peaceful, pristine and perfect—until it isn’t.
The year is 1957 and the action centers on the respectable Episcopal household of nerdy Gardner Lodge (a bulbous, alarmingly overweight Matt Damon), his wife, Rose (a miscast Julianne Moore), their 11-year-old son, Nicky (a fine Noah Jupe), and Rose’s wheelchair-bound sister, Maggie (also played by Julianne Moore). Normalcy is established immediately with the two gleefully smiling sisters on the front porch shelling peas for a perfect meat loaf dinner. Suddenly there’s a terrifying home invasion by two thugs who chloroform and murder Mama Rose. Nicky is only a little boy, so he can’t understand, after his Mom’s funeral, why his father and aunt refuse to identify the robbers at the police lineup. Confusion grows when his aunt dyes her hair blonde to take his mother’s place in their home, but a light finally dawns when Daddy Dearest starts chasing a delightedly squealing Aunt Maggie around the bedroom in his underwear and spanking her with a hairbrush. While Nicky tries to adjust to the bizarre new activities in his own home, Dad gets beaten up by the burglars and Aunt Maggie grows more supercilious, condescending and mean, threatening to get the kid out of the way by sending him to military school.
You don’t have to enroll in the Yale graduate school to know, even at age 11, there is trouble in paradise. In fact, everything tanks when a black family with a boy Nicky’s age moves in next door. The community starts worrying about declining property values, overcharging the new family at the supermarket. Nicky watches in fear from the window while the once-perfect townsfolk march around their yard beating drums, hang Confederate flags on their door, and cause a riot, burning crosses on their lawn. Meanwhile, the robbers turn out to be hit men hired by Dad and Aunt Madge to kill Nicky’s Mom for her insurance money, and the goons want their share of the payoff. While all of this is going on, another predator enters the picture—a grinning Oil Can Harry insurance investigator who wants to keep all of the profits from the insurance policy for himself (played by Oscar Isaac, a Coen Brothers alumnus, with a pencil moustache). The only one who knows all the secrets is Nicky, who bonds with the black boy next door thanks to the great American pastime of baseball. Now they need to dispose of him, too. Something must be done before they all end up broke, in jail, or the poor house, declares Aunt Madge, who develops a new talent as a self-appointed serial killer. No spoilers as to how it all turns out, but keep an eye on the laundry lye when she starts making her famous peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
There’s no shortage of ideas in Suburbicon. Orson Welles is invading Mars on the radio to remind us all of what kept America awake at night back in the day, and the neighbors chant hate slogans and hang Confederate flags from the black family’s door to remind us all of what has happened six decades later in 2017 Charlottesville. Unfortunately, the scattered elements don’t always meld comfortably, and in the end George Clooney just gives up trying. He doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie he wants Suburbicon to be, so he just lets it be every kind of movie you ever heard of at the same time. When he loses his way, the audience loses attention, and the whole thing flops and flaps all over the place, like a turkey with a severed head the day before Thanksgiving. The movie is something of a mess. Instead of a turkey dinner, what we get is only hash.