It doesn’t help that Clooney’s heart is obviously in the right place. If anything, his good intentions make Suburbicon all the more frustrating to behold: Its treatment of racism in 1950s America has the air of a rushed homework assignment, a Wikipedia summary of an issue that shouldn’t be used as a cute punctuation point to an otherwise unrelated narrative. Clooney’s aim is to draw out the subtext of many a tale about the dark heart of post-war American suburbia—to point out that whatever soapy dramas were unfolding in Leave It to Beaver–land got more attention than the nastier institutional prejudices of the era.
To prove that point, Clooney has made a film that opens on the plight of an African American family moving into a white suburban community, briefly depicts the torment they suffered there, and then mostly ignores them for the rest of the running time. The film’s marginalization of its black characters is a meta-version of the very idea Clooney is driving at, but that doesn’t make Suburbicon any more palatable. It’s a high-wire storytelling act that’s difficult to imagine any director executing appropriately, and Clooney doesn’t come remotely close to nailing it.
The main arc of Suburbicon, the one originally laid down by the Coen brothers (who wrote the film in 1986 but never shot it), follows the half-witted machinations of Gardner Lodge (Damon), a pillar of the fictional planned community of Suburbicon, who conspires with his sister-in-law Margaret (Julianne Moore) in an insurance scam. Gardner is a classic Coens buffoon, equally calculating and idiotic, and Damon does his best to try and imbue this puffy fool with some real menace. But he and Moore mostly exist to subvert their images—Damon as the friendly everyman, Moore as the perfect housewife—so that the shock of their evil deeds will land a little harder.
But every twist in the movie is too easy to see coming, even as it lurches into more frightening and violent territory in its final act, when Gardner’s son Nicky (an admirably plucky Noah Jupe) begins to do battle with his father. The film’s only really electrifying moments are generated by Oscar Isaac, who plays a foppish insurance investigator named Bud Cooper (a role that was originally intended for Clooney himself); it’s in his scenes that the darkly funny spark of the Coens’ writing flickers to life. Other than that, Suburbicon feels like weak sauce, impressive only in how pitilessly evil its main characters are.
But then there’s the Mayers family, played by Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke, with Tony Espinosa as their son Andy. The film begins with an angry Suburbicon town meeting that uses excerpts from the virulently racist petition that the inhabitants of Levittown, Pennsylvania, drew up to try and drive out the real-life Myers family in 1957. Later, a riot that unfolds outside the Mayers’ house leads to Confederate flags being stuffed into their windows—again, drawn from the historical record. What we don’t see is any interior life of the family being victimized, or any attempt at understanding the horror they went through.