It’s rare for so many talented people to come together to make a film as turgid and pointless as Suburbicon, a “satire” that aims high and comes up completely empty. When you’ve got George Clooney directing, a script credited in part to the Joel and Ethan Coen, and a cast that includes Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, you could expect something of a major work. But Suburbicon is a strong Worst Movie of the Year candidate.
Suburbicon is set in the late 1950s, in a Levittown-like planned suburban community, and its plot plays on two tracks that have little to do with one another. In the first, a white family (including dad Damon, young son Noah Jupe and, confusingly, two different characters played by Moore) is terrorized by home invaders, in a situation that soon spirals out of control. In the second, a black family moves in across the street in the otherwise all-white town, and they soon find themselves victims of a campaign of racist terrorism from the rest of the town.
The film never adequately connects the two halves, but its focus is clearly on Damon’s clan, whose plot isn’t quite what it seems, involving debts and threats from mobsters. Meanwhile, you can tell Suburbicon doesn’t have its heart in the racism subplot, for a simple reason: the black family has hardly any characters. They lack first names or traits, and the father (Leith M. Burke) doesn’t speak altogether. As a racism fable, Suburbicon isn’t subtle, but it’s not progressive in the slightest. It’s patronizing.
There’s much that goes wrong here. That the suburbs are harboring hidden darkness, or that 1950s America was repressed and depraved, are clichés. The tonal shifts are jarring, and not in a good way. It’s supposed to be a “dark comedy,” but there’s not an ounce of humor anywhere. And the film is being sold with an egregiously dishonest advertising campaign, which implies that Damon’s character is a brave, put-upon suburban dad striking back against criminals.
Damon sleepwalks through his role; it’s the most listless performance of his career. Moore isn’t especially impressive in either of her roles; her demented 1950s Stepford routine was much more effective in last month’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and she does a better dual role in Todd Haynes’ upcoming Wonderstruck. Jupe acquits himself well as the boy, but it’s really only Oscar Isaac, as a slippery insurance man, who comes alive at all.
If we’re wondering how a film written by Joel and Ethan Coen could go so far off the rails, the answer is that it’s actually an old script, from the 1980s—one they never opted to make—which has been re-written by Clooney and his partner Grant Heslov (all four are credited as writers). It comes across as Coen Karaoke, a failed imitation of the themes and tropes of the Coens’ best work.
Clooney’s directing career got off to a promising start with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in 2002 and Good Night, and Good Luck in 2005. Both made it clear that Clooney was heavily influenced by his frequent collaborators, the Coens and Steven Soderbergh, but his talent behind the camera appeared legitimate. But then came Leatherheads, The Ides of March, The Monument’s Men, and now the worst yet, Suburbicon. Clooney doesn’t have a great command of pacing, shot selection, or really anything else; a chase scene at the end is filmed incoherently.
The Coen Brothers’ most recent film was the triumphant comedy Hail, Caesar, in early 2016, and they currently have no announced projects, although they’re working on a couple of TV projects, including a Western anthology series for Netflix and an HBO limited series. If you’re a Coens devotee thinking that Suburbicon is the closest thing you’ll get to a Coen movie this year, sorry to disappoint you.