George Clooney’s sixth film as a director, working from a screenplay he developed with the Coen brothers and Grant Heslov, paints a cartoon picture of 1950s America where lawns are always freshly cut, burgers taste delicious and criminals are caught. Presumably, bank robbers prowl the streets of Suburbicon in jailhouse garb, Beagle Boys style, ensuring they are easily identifiable.
This is the Pine-Sol scented air Audrey, the streetwise pixie from Little Shop of Horrors, purred about in Somewhere That’s Green, daydreaming of a future barely visible from the gutter. There is never any question whether Clooney and his writers will prick the balloon and return us to Skid Row in one way or another, revealing the dark underbelly behind Uncle Sam’s wholesome Happy Days-esque facade.
While a crime-doesn’t-pay, Fargo-lite narrative wraps its tentacles around one house, occupied by Matt Damon and Julianne Moore, a neighbouring property is surrounded day and night by an angry lynch mob. This part of the story is rooted in the real-life tale of African Americans, William and Daisy Myers, who moved into an all-white neighbourhood in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s and set off a maelstrom of racially-motivated violence.
In the bizarro world of Suburbicon, their story is less important than the wretched affair transpiring over the fence; a tart melodrama involving buttoned-up family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his paralysed wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore), their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe, the stand-out performer) and Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore). They are hit by a home invasion early in the piece, which has (I’m being coy with the details, even though these are first act revelations) lasting repercussions.
Nicky figures something strange is going on when the police find, then haul in the two culprits, whom he clearly recognises, but the rest of the household insist it wasn’t them. Not long later, an insurance claims investigator played by Oscar Isaac knocks on the front door, his character perhaps a homage to Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the brilliant claims adjuster in Double Indemnity who famously listened to the “little man” inside his gut.
Its comedy has no jive, and the plight of the neighbours over the fence reminds us this story is no laughing matter.
Matt Damon’s steely, stripped-back, average Joe style works against him, lending Lodge a stoicism and stony-heartedness that feels inhuman and even machine-like. One wonders if a more erratic and/or flustered performance might have made the character’s desperation more pronounced, and more compelling.
Vision of Damon riding a child’s bicycle, or squeezing hand grippers, remind us of Suburbicon’s satirical aspirations – as does the Better Homes and Gardens polish of Robert Elswit’s cinematography, and the bounciness of Alexandre Desplat’s score. But the comedy has no jive, and the plight of the neighbours over the fence reminds us this story is no laughing matter, despite Clooney’s insistence that we are watching a black comedy.
The vicious treatment of the Myers reminds us who is on the right side of history and who is not, without presenting the slightest depth in the rendering of their tormentors or themselves. These victims have little agency, and almost literally no voice, with barely a few scant lines of dialogue shared between members of the family.
For a while the message appears to be: innocent black people are mercilessly hounded, but the crowd is oblivious to the heinous goings-on of guilty whites. That is a simple but salient message, particularly in the wake of ugly happenings in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But the filmmaker reneges even on that. Instead of lifting the hood on the seemingly hunky-dory, white bread world of Archie Andrews or Richie Cunningham, the nostalgic America where wrongs inevitably sort themselves out between gulps of milkshakes and slices of pie, Clooney finds other ways to simplify the message that the world isn’t that bad after all.
Suburbicon’s tangy aesthetic and retro magazine look belies a black and white universe. Wrongdoers get their comeuppance and clear-cut retribution is served. The quaint, cheesy image of two children playing catch in the yard, loaded with nothing less than the restoration of hope for the future of humankind, is the final – but not the greatest – insult.
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