- By Charles Ealy Special to the American-Statesman
“Suburbicon” feels like a Coen brothers takedown of 1950s suburban culture at first, but it’s based on one of their old scripts that was updated and melded with an idea from director and producer George Clooney and his writing partner, Grant Heslov.
They wanted to add, as a subplot, the arrival of the first black family to an all-white neighborhood and explore the angst that so many latent racists had toward their new neighbors — based on what happened in Levittown, Pennsylvania.
It sounds like it might work, and it does to some extent. But as hard as he tries, Clooney is not able to sustain the tone.
Like comedy, satire has no room for error, and there are too many false notes in “Suburbicon” to land it in the top tier of the six films directed by Clooney, mainly “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”
The movie centers on what appears to be a nice white couple and their son, as well as the live-in sister of the wife. The wife has been injured in a car accident and is in a wheelchair, so the sister is there to help.
Matt plays Gardner, the husband, while Julianne Moore plays the dual role of wife and sister. Noah Jupe is their increasingly bewildered son.
The bewilderment begins with a home invasion, where all the family members are subjected to sleeping gas before a robbery. The big problem: The mom in the wheelchair gets way too much and dies.
This isn’t a big spoiler; it happens at the beginning of the film. And it’s rather clear from the first couple of scenes that there’s some hanky-panky going on between Gardner and his sister-in-law, Margaret.
It just so happens that this home invasion occurs just as a black family named Meyers (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke) move in next door to Gardner and his supposedly grieving family. News of their arrival spreads quickly, via a gossipy mailman, and everyone begins to think, “There goes the neighborhood,” even as the crime at the neighboring house seems increasingly suspicious.
It’s especially suspicious to an insurance investigator named Roger (Oscar Isaac), who doesn’t seem to respectful of boundaries when he starts to question the white family.
Meanwhile, white neighbors begin to surround the home of the African-American family and bang musical instruments all night in an effort to force them to leave.
It’s clear that Clooney is trying to point out that the idea of a “great America” in the 1950s depended entirely on several factors: whether you were white, male, Christian or straight. But that’s not an original concept, and the widely disparate elements do not come together in a cohesive whole.
There are moments of brilliance, but satire requires a sharper and more sustained bite.