Unpleasantville: Tonally wacky "Suburbicon" works just fine as an arch dark farce

Suburbicon (2017)
104 min., rated R.

For his sixth time behind the camera, George Clooney bests his last directorial effort (2013’s disappointingly dull “The Monuments Men”) by dusting off an old script by Joel and Ethan Coen from 1986. With the Coen brothers’ DNA all over it, “Suburbicon” is a blackly comic satire about 1950s white homogeneity, and as that, the film is a familiar, nihilistic shaggy-dog story, like a Norman Rockwell painting splattered with blood. Unfortunately, there are two neighboring stories that co-exist in “Suburbicon,” and the one that’s less developed is where co-writers Clooney and Grant Heslov came in and took a pass at the original script. Based on a true story of a black family moving into a Levitttown, Pennsylvania community, this “other” story is a statement on racism, but it never seamlessly mixes with the crime noir portion, at least not as effectively as it could have like peanut butter and jelly (a sandwich that does become a plot point). Though the results feel like a patchwork of 1944’s “Double Indemnity,” 1996’s “Fargo,” 1998’s “Pleasantville,” and 2002’s “Far from Heaven,” “Suburbicon” is absurd, unwholesome fun that works better as an arch dark farce than actual satire.

In the wholesome, cookie-cutter suburban community of Suburbicon—an alleged melting pot of folks from New York, Ohio and Mississippi with manicured lawns and white picket fences—the first black family, Mr. and Mrs. Meyers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) and son Andy (Tony Espinosa), have moved in and created an uproar with the white majority. Next door, the Lodge family has its own problems. In the middle of the night, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore), their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and Rose’s twin sister Maggie (Julianne Moore) are tied up and chloroformed by a pair of menacing home intruders (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell). Rose is chloroformed the heaviest and winds up dying in the hospital. As the police try to catch the robbers who murdered Rose, Maggie remains living with Gardner and Nicky because “the boy needs a mother.” From there, Nick grows suspicious of his father and aunt when they don’t seem to recognize his mother’s killer in a police line-up. 

“Suburbicon” isn’t covering any fresh territory, the dark underbelly emerging from the idyllic, picture-postcard ‘50s façade practically its own film subgenre by now. Regular folks pulling off a crime and turning out to be too incompetent for the job is also a throughline in most darkly comic, screwball crime capers written and directed by the Coen siblings. Director George Clooney lends a solid sense of irony to the proceedings, even if some of the turns are telegraphed before they actually happen. There’s an overriding amount of cynicism for the characters, particularly Gardner and Maggie who aren’t really meant to be likable and come off more as gee-whiz caricatures with deviousness creeping in rather than flawed human beings. The Meyers family members are relegated to scapegoats and a juxtaposition as another violent crime goes on next door unheard and unseen. Save for their son who plays catch with Nicky, the mother is hardly a character without a first name and the father is even more of a non-entity without a first name, let alone a single line of dialogue, all of them intentionally marginalized. It’s all part of Clooney’s satirical aim, saying that white people can literally get away with murder when a family of color is enduring a mob with torches and Confederate flags. Even if it’s a little obvious and ham-fisted, this is a critique of racial injustice that is treated as bluntly and ugly as it should be. 

Matt Damon does well by the limits of his milquetoast everyman role as Gardener Lodge, who finds himself way in over his head. Julianne Moore gets the chance to play dual roles even after this year's "Wonderstruck," and while she makes the roles of Rose and Maggie distinct, Rose only appears for the first fifteen minutes. As Maggie, Moore returns to her “Far from Heaven” wardrobe but with a dippiness and Stepfordized smile that almost hides how rotten she might be. When a pencil-mustached Oscar Isaac comes in as wily claims investigator Roger who smells something fishy going in with the Lodges, he adds a much-needed jolt of energy and intelligence. Like the casting in most of Coen-directed films, the faces are memorable, including character actor Glenn Fleshler (TV’s “True Detective”) and Alex Hassell, who perfectly resembles a greaser from the ‘50s, as the two home-invading brutes. As Nicky, newcomer Noah Jupe (TV’s “The Night Manager”) is an expressive find and about the only decent character worth latching onto besides the Meyers family. 

“Suburbicon” is diverting from moment to moment as an insurance scam goes violently wrong and the bodies start to pile up accidentally, and for an actor who’s worked with the Coen brothers four times, director George Clooney makes sure the Coens' absurdism comes through. The characters are never really etched beyond two dimensions, and maybe that is the point, but the film has the courage of its convictions at least to do away with certain characters and gives Nicky an earned happy ending of sorts. Director Clooney also gets ace work out of his technical team, Robert Elswit’s cinematography and James D. Bissell’s production design by James D. Bissell bright and immaculate without crossing into parody (the former takes advantage of the Hitchcockian noir aspects of the story with a strangulation happening in a silhouette on a wall). Only does composer Alexandre Desplat punch up his comically exaggerated score to an overbearing degree a little too often. Falling short of meaning and profundity, “Suburbicon” is not some prestige picture, but for those with a questionable sense of humor, it is a delightfully black-hearted, tonally wacky diversion.

Grade: B -