Joel and Ethan Coen have always been masters of tonal dissonance. One of the most delicate cinematic balancing acts that can be achieved, more often than not any sort of inconsistency in tone can derail a movie before it truly begins. While the Coens co-wrote Suburbicon, they did so over 20 years ago — and it shows. George Clooney’s latest directorial effort runs aground on the rocky shore of incongruity early and never recovers, awkwardly attempting to shoehorn a sociological subplot into scathing satire, creating one film from two concepts and doing both a disservice.
Rather than the darkly comedic dissection of midcentury American culture that its trailers promised, Suburbicon instead plays things a little too straight — aiming for the comedic absurdity of The Big Lebowski meets the neo-noir nihilism of Fargo but lacking the integral soulfulness that defines those films. This leaves us with a caustic portrait of the implicit ugliness of Americana that neglects the tongue-in-cheek fantasticism that made so many of the Coens’ films special. Clooney fails to commit firmly enough to a point and, in that noncommittal act, fails to bother making much of one at all, at least beyond the most obvious.
Suburbicon is so fundamentally bifurcated that it’s patently obvious where the Coens’ script ends and Clooney’s rewrites (with help from collaborator Grant Heslov) begin. The Coens’ story revolves around a harried midlevel executive living the suburban ideal, with the exception of a half-baked murder scheme that plays like a poor man’s Double Indemnity. Clooney’s contributions consist of an awkwardly amended racial subplot based on the true story of the Mayerses, a black family who moves into the all-white suburb of Levittown, Pa., in the 1950s. The two narrative threads contribute little to one another and stand so starkly in contrast that the blatant proselytization of Clooney’s segments eventually undermines their own justification. He may be making a valid comment on race relations, but he does it so obtusely that it’s hard to swallow.
Matt Damon is perfectly passable as Gardner Lodge, the patriarch whose picket-fence persona gives Damon ample room to explore his established comedic chops while indulging in a subversive villainous streak that shines in the third act. Julianne Moore does double duty as Lodge’s paralyzed wife and ever-present sister-in-law, and she does what she can with what she’s given, but I had more fun watching her similarly nostalgia-fueled (and substantially more outlandish) turn in Kingsman: The Golden Circle last month. At least Oscar Isaac is there to add some much-needed levity to the proceedings, as he seems to be the only one who firmly decided what kind of movie he thought he was in. Clooney has always been a solid actor’s director, but it would have helped if he gave his ensemble a better script to work from.
So is Suburbicon a joke or a lecture? It’s both and neither, lacking the satirical substance to sustain its sanctimonious sermonizing. Clooney’s clearly a competent filmmaker, but in this instance at least, he would have been better served in front of the camera with a Coen on the other side. Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality. Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.