This review was originally published at the Toronto International Film Festival; it’s been since updated.
By now, most of the world knows that George Clooney’s Suburbicon is a fusion of two different scripts, one by Clooney and his frequent collaborator, Grant Heslov, and the other by Joel and Ethan Coen. I did not know this when I saw the film at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. I thought either someone had mixed up the reels or that Clooney was doing a Dadaist experiment to see whether tonally disparate stories could come together to form something with its own core integrity. No and no.
The film begins broadly but promisingly, with a sociological accounting 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 an egregiously artificial pale green, yellow, and pink, like Fiestaware. Suddenly, this paradise is threatened by 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). 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. What was I thinking? That Suburbicon would make linear sense?
The second movie inside Suburbicon is a black comedy in the Coens’ familiar smart-aleck mode of self-interested peons plotting against one another and everyone dying in quasi-amusing but shockingly gory ways. Some of it is rather good. Moore gives a fun, stylized period performance and Damon — pudged up for the occasion — is amusing as the 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 then jeers and all-night pounding drums. Then we’re back to the blood-simple shenanigans of Damon, Moore, two thuggish killers, and Oscar Isaac doing 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.
Since the disastrous premieres in Venice and Toronto, some people I know have tried to make a case for Suburbicon. It’s possible, I guess, if you think of it as two different, well-made movies, one harshly powerful, one ghoulishly funny, both suggesting how deeply unnatural suburbia is in pitting black against white, husband against wife, sister against sister, capitalism against socialism — I’m just bullshitting. I think to make it work you’d have to lop off the entire black family story (which doesn’t even get a satisfactory resolution) and just keep the Coens’ material. Mixing pulpy black comedy and a straight-ahead story of racism translates only into sanctimonious pulp.