Suburbicon Is Schizoid, Sanctimonious Pulp

Matt Damon in Suburbicon. Photo: Paramount Pictures

My first Toronto Film Festival screening was George Clooney’s Suburbicon, a film that would feel schizoid in any country. The most charitable way to view it is as a Dadaist experiment, in which two tonally disparate movies were hacked down and their remaining strands woven together to bizarre effect.

Suburbicon — written by Joel and Ethan Coen, then “updated” by Clooney and his frequent collaborator Grant Heslov — begins as a broad satire of the post–World War II American dream: a clean, orderly, prosperous society far from urban chaos, with row upon row of houses made of ticky-tacky, their interiors painted egregiously artificial pale greens, yellows, and pinks, like Fiestaware. Then Clooney and Heslov violently gum up the works: There’s suddenly a black family (father, mother, son) that no one apparently knows has moved in until the cheery postman rings the doorbell and gets the surprise of his cracker life. Clooney serves up snippets from ’50s and ’60s TV — many of them real — in which white people explain that this is no time for integration, and that the Negro has to prove himself equal before he can be treated equally.

There’s a smugness to the way Clooney stages and shoots this section, so that we’re made to feel superior to these monstrous whites with their interchangeable ashen, flabby faces. But it’s okay, I thought. Let’s see where he goes with it. The black family’s next-door neighbors look on: Mom (Julianne Moore), who’s in a wheelchair; her sister (Julianne Moore); and the little boy, Nicky (Noah Jupe), who’s lit to bring out his E.T. ears. The sister sends the boy over to play with his black neighbor — and the next thing we know, there’s a scene in which Nicky is woken by his dad (Matt Damon) in the night and told there are men in the house who want to do something bad to them.

It’s obvious what’s going on: The family is being punished for having reached out to those black interlopers. Obvious and wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. What was I thinking? That Suburbicon was linear?

The portion of the movie more evidently written by the Coens is rather good, a broad black comedy in their familiar smart-aleck mode of self-interested peons plotting against one another and everyone dying in quasi-amusing but shockingly gory ways. Moore gives a fun, stylized period performance (her sister character is an idiot) and Damon — pudged up for the occasion — is amusing as a selfish, weak little man who’s in over his head, a bit like William H. Macy in the Coens’ Fargo.

But whenever Clooney (and the Coens) get some momentum going in that story, there’s a cut to the black family (the man is barely in the film, the woman is played by Karimah Westbrook) as they virtuously endure the escalating racist slings and arrows (and jeers and pounding drums). Then we’re back to the two horrible killers and Oscar Isaac doing a good creepy-insinuating shtick as an insurance investigator. Through it all, Alexandre Desplat whips up Bernard Herrmann–esque storms and tries to tie it all together musically. But not even Mahler could bring order to such a ramshackle structure.

I frankly don’t know why Suburbicon happened. I do know that pulpy black comedy combined with a straight-ahead story of racism translates into sanctimonious pulp. And when all is said and done for (corpses everywhere), Clooney doesn’t even tell us what happened to that poor black family.

To sum up my feelings about Suburbicon on the fly: Huh?

Suburbicon Is Schizoid, Sanctimonious Pulp