“SUBURBICON” — 2 stars — Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Jack Conley, Glenn Fleshler; R (violence, language and some sexuality); in general release
Set in a fictional tract of 1950s suburban housing, director George Clooney’s dark and satirical “Suburbicon” tries to wrestle two narrative threads into a single point. But whatever point that is, “Suburbicon” doesn’t get there.
The dominant thread follows the middle-class, white-bread Lodge family as its seeming cookie-cutter existence gets caught up in a web of criminal behavior. Matt Damon plays Gardner Lodge, the uneasy patriarch of a family that features his son Nicky (Noah Jupe), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), and her sister Margaret (also Moore).
When Rose is killed in a home invasion at the hands of two low-rent thugs (Alex Hassell and Corey Allen Kotler), there is an outpouring of neighborhood sympathy and affection. But when Gardner refuses to identify the culprits from a police lineup, Nicky starts to suspect that his father may have been involved in his mother’s death.
It quickly becomes apparent that the home invasion was staged in order to both pay back some unwieldy debts and to clear the path for Gardner’s clandestine relationship with Margaret, who quickly moves in after her sister’s death, insisting that Nicky needs a mother figure in his life. The intrigue continues from there, as Nicky becomes more and more of a threat to Gardner and Margaret’s plans, which involve duping an insurance policy claim investigator named Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac).
The parallel thread follows the African-American Mayers family, which moves in just behind the Lodge family and encounters tremendous racial animosity from the neighborhood. As the first black family in the development, the Mayers first encounter watchful glares, then the neighbors start putting up fences, and then crowds begin to gather at the Mayers’ property border night after night to make noise and torment the family.
There are plenty of moving parts, yet Clooney’s effort never seems to add up to anything with a clear meaning. The Lodge plot feels nihilistic (more on that later), and the Mayers storyline feels shallow and underdeveloped. Together, they suggest the presence of a message but leave the audience feeling empty.
If you go behind the scenes, things start to make a little more sense. “Suburbicon’s” script was initially written by Joel and Ethan Coen, the brothers responsible for writing and directing films such as “Raising Arizona,” “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “Suburbicon” definitely falls among their darker efforts, but significantly, they chose not to direct this time around, rather turning the script over to Clooney, who teamed up with screenwriter Grant Heslov for a re-write. In the directorial hands of the Coens, the Lodge plot might have retained a dark comic tone to reinforce the satire, but here it rings hollow.
Whether “Suburbicon” is meant as a commentary on past or present racism, or an indictment of suburban white America, Clooney’s effort just doesn’t come together into any kind of cohesive focus, resulting in a collection of interesting performances that fail to achieve a satisfying end. Ultimately, “Suburbicon” is just one of those movies that leaves you thinking about the better efforts from all the people involved.
“Suburbicon” is rated R for violence, language and some sexuality; running time: 104 minutes.