The perfect veneer of 1950s suburban life is just a mask for the deep rot and hypocrisy festering underneath the trimmed lawns in George Clooney’s “Suburbicon,” a derivative and somewhat edgeless satire with some compelling performances nonetheless.
Clooney directs a script credited to Joel and Ethan Coen, himself and Grant Heslov about a model community, Suburbicon, that promises a perfect suburban existence: a parcel of property for all, clean and well-stocked grocery stores, no traffic and friendly neighbors. But there’s a catch and it is skin deep.
This is a problem when the Meyers family (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke and Tony Espinosa) moves to town. They are black, you see, and the rest of the community is not thrilled about it — eyebrows are raised, meetings are held (with interchangeable middle aged white men in flat top haircuts and wire-rimmed glasses shouting at one another through Dutch angle shots). Crowds start to gather outside of the Meyers house until it becomes an all-out mob.
The plight of the Meyers family is just the side story, though, a tacked-on and bluntly conceived commentary on how this community is too distracted by their racist fears to see what’s going on next door, where Gardner (Matt Damon), his wheelchair-bound wife and his sister-in-law (both played by Julianne Moore) and his young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe) are terrorized in their own home by two goons with unclear motives.
It’s probably best not to say much about how this home invasion spirals and evolves, but it brings a fair amount of intrigue and terrific side characters into the strange orbit of the milquetoast Gardner. There’s Gary Basaraba as the empathetic Uncle Mitch, a lumbering and sweet presence who just wants to look after his nephew Nicky. Oscar Isaac, too, steals the show in a brief appearance as a three-steps-ahead insurance agent. Westbrook does wonders as Mrs. Meyers with not much screen time or dialogue, especially in a particularly upsetting scene in a grocery store where a store manager tells her that the price of milk is $20 for her. And the young Jupe proves to be a fantastic and compelling find, carrying much of the film as the hyper-vigilant kid who is watching his world unravel and doing something about it.
The leads are a little more underwhelming, which is perhaps a problem of the script. Damon plays Gardner as a kind of quiet everyman, the type who recedes into the background and goes unnoticed most of the time. Moore is more over-the-top, especially as the sister-in-law Margaret, who strains to be the perfect 50s woman. There are times when they’re allowed to play a bit with quirky dialogue that I would assume is thanks to the Coens, like an amusing discussion about Aruba, but these moments are fewer than you might imagine from a Coen-crafted script.
Of all the periods that Clooney could have chosen to skewer, it feels almost toothless to take on 50s suburbia, though. Certainly there are meant to be parallels with today, but it is too obvious to be particularly subversive or revealing, and doesn’t even go far enough to satirize the hypocritical social mores of the time. Thus you’re left with just the plot, which moves along in a fairly compelling, if predictable way. But what’s the point of all this talent and originality and freedom if it’s going to feel so much like something we’ve already seen before?
“Suburbicon,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “violence, language and some sexuality.” Running time: 104 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr