“Suburbicon” is a frustrating jumble of good ideas that fail to coalesce into a satisfying whole. Directed by George Clooney (with a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, Clooney and Grant Heslov) the picture attempts (and fails) to juggle two disparate stories: the first is a middling slice of dark comedic noir involving the dissolution of a family in 1950’s suburbia while the other is a potentially compelling social drama involving race and segregation that's given only a few of scenes to unfurl, rendering it hollow.
The crime story gets off to an abrupt start as Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) wakes his young son Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) in the middle of the night. The father leads his boy to the living room where his mom Rose (Julianne Moore) and aunt Nancy (also Moore) are waiting with two mean looking heavies who intend to rob their nice suburban house in the town of Suburbicon. The confrontation leads to tragedy and the Lodge family is left to mourn. However, there’s more to the story as Gardner may not be as innocent as he initially seems.
What we have here is a combination of “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” with a hearty shot of Coen Bros-esque black comedy, which admittedly sounds juicy. It’s a shame that the film always feels pressed for time. The mystery unravels so quickly that it increasingly loses potency and eventually fizzles out in an excessively violent last act. The film also takes an extremely dark, psychotic turn in its finale that doesn’t feel entirely earned because of how hectic and undercooked the rest of the plot is. Meanwhile the characters aren’t given a chance to develop. There’s a scene between Gardner and Nicky near the end that would be absolutely bone chilling if Gardner wasn’t such a bland, unmemorable protagonist. A poor mans Jerry Lundegaard from “Fargo.”
The crime story is never unwatchable; there are a handful of gleefully twisted moments and Oscar Isaac shows up briefly to steal the show but nothing sticks in your mind afterwards.
The other storyline in “Suburbicon” (happening simultaneously) is fraught with unrealized potential. It involves an African American family, The Meyers, moving into Suburbicon--a seemingly innocent event that throws the town’s white middle class residents into flux. They thought they were safe from the “dangers” of the city and integration here. It becomes immediately clear that this drama would make for a fresher, more urgent examination of the dark underbelly of suburbia than the second rate Coen Bros. crime film going on around it. All it takes is a black family moving in for white suburbanites to drop their cheerful façade and turn into racist, paranoid monsters. The scenes where the neighborhood succumbs to mob violence are tense and unsettlingly relevant.
Unfortunately, the Coen Bros. crime film takes center stage while this social drama plays out like a painfully shallow, heavy handed aside that could have easily been axed from the final cut. Its so one note and inert that I don’t think you can even call it a “subplot.” It’s a germ of a subplot that’s been dropped into the middle of different movie. The Meyers family, made up of a husband and wife and young boy are cardboard cutouts. Not once does Clooney venture into their house and give us a glimpse into their personal lives and show how they’re reacting to what’s going on around them.
The larger issue here is that Clooney fails to establish a substantial connection between these two storylines. Nicky and the Meyers boy play together a few times and bond while racist adults yell from the streets but these scenes don’t really go anywhere nor do they fit in with the rest of the movie. You feel like you’re watching two different movies. Yet even if “Suburbicon” had been longer and the social drama had been fleshed out more I’m still not sure the two stories would be compatible. They don’t brush up against each other nearly enough, narratively or thematically.
“Suburbicon” basically just puts two underwritten and unrelated narratives on top of each other in the hope that they’ll somehow fit together. On their own, said narratives might have made for good films (the racial drama in particular) but together they make for an underwhelming, disappointing mess.