International human rights attorney, Amal Clooney’s husband George, directs his first Coen Brothers movie. Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski”) are known for dark and wacky satire. “Suburbicon” is a script they wrote and discarded decades ago, but revived by George Clooney, who could’ve spent more time invigorating the narrative.
Instead, Gorgeous George and co-writer Grant Heslov, invent a parallel plot line of social injustice that is admirable, but doesn’t integrate well into the main story. Set in 1947, post-war housing, such as Levittown, NY and Lakewood, CA, introduced master-planned communities. Fictional “Suburbicon” has the feel of a flawless “Pleasantville” (1998).
The homes are all brand new. The community has a pool, a choir and a mall, but no lodge, so how good could it be? Gardner and Margaret (Matt Damon, Julianne Moore) enjoy a perfect home with son Nicky (Noah Jupe). As Margaret is wheelchair bound from a car accident, her sister Rose (also played by Moore) stays with the family to help out.
All is well until two thugs break into their home and terrorize the family, killing Margaret. Heartbroken, the family and the town’s folk do their best to get on with their lives. To make matters worse, weird Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) wants to be closer to Nicky. Meanwhile, a black family moves into the neighborhood, “ruining” their ideal community.
Clooney applies meticulous detail to the style of clothing, hairstyles and home furnishings, to capture the appearance of the fabulous 50’s while the audience is transported to those wonder years. The notable exception is that every car on the street is clean, polished and dent free, as if provided directly from the Canyon Lake Car Club.
Coen Brother movies have common themes. With odd and dry humor, their protagonists are typically ordinary, but immoral people in way over their heads in peculiar situations, usually involving murder. The antagonists are often physically imposing pathological sadists prone to extreme violence. Their films are notable for their specific time and place. The characters are stereotypes, even caricatures of that particular setting, which provides an opportunity to make it fun.
This picture captures our attention because it contains all the expected elements with a strong cast that carries the message. However, what it lacks are too few bizarre Coen-type observations and quirky scenarios to break up the tension. Instead, Clooney offers a not so subtle lesson of Racial Relations 101. That might be even more important today than ever, but the presentation is so rudimentary, it feels like two unrelated movies.
The primary story is entertaining, but could have been terrific. The effort invested in the secondary plot could have been better spent adding witty and clever dialog to the primary story. The alternative plot didn’t add much to the movie and clearly couldn’t have succeeded on its own. Apparently, Clooney was just determined to deliver his message.
We care strongly, one way or the other, about the characters, including the supporting cast. Oscar Isaac plays a nosy insurance investigator. He has an inquiring mind and wants to know. As he learns that he’s surrounded by murder, lies and disturbed characters, he plows forward. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
“Suburbicon” is 104 minutes and rated R for violence, language and some sexuality. At its root, this is another uniquely powerful Coen Brothers movie and a treat for their fans. In some ways, Clooney’s message of social issues provides a level of depth to think about the wholesome pretense of our greatest generation and the baby boomers.
TV producer Norman Lear (“All in the Family”) told Clooney, “This is the angriest movie I’ve ever seen.” We’re not so sure about that, but other than the comedy of errors, it did cry out for more absurdity and humor; dark, warped or whatever. If you’re wondering if the Coen’s should just write and direct their own movies, we’d say, “Ya, you betcha!”
Ron’s Rating: B- Leigh’s Rating: C+