The planned community of Suburbicon lures home buyers with the promise of happiness and prosperity for all. The advertisement that opens the eponymous film touts the development’s American postwar vision of diversity in which new residents flock to the town’s melting pot from far-flung places like New York, Ohio, and Mississippi. Yet these midcentury suburbanites are rocked to their core when the community’s first black family purchases a home there. Panic and social antagonism are soon replaced by rage and mayhem, exposing the hypocrisies festering behind the white picket fences. Meanwhile, over on the next block, a potboiler of a murder mystery is unfolding.
The problem with Suburbicon is that these two narratives never coalesce. Sure, they reflect on each other in the sense that they show how mendacity and false virtue hide behind the American middle-class facade. But the murder mystery becomes the film’s primary focus while the racial hatred is shunted to its peripheral vision. Once upon a time, Suburbicon existed as an unproduced script by Joel and Ethan Coen (perhaps they realized that they were never going to top Fargo in terms of murder mysteries). Cut to years later when filmmaker George Clooney and his screenwriting and producing partner Grant Heslov were developing a project about the Fifties whites-only housing policies in effect at the planned Levittown communities in New York and Pennsylvania. At some point, Clooney remembered this unmade Coen brothers script and received permission to merge the two storylines. However, the final product is an awkward mixture of amusingly Coen-esque criminal capers and a high-minded broadside from Clooney (who is also the film’s director). The result is disjointed and, ironically, even falls victim to the very thing it condemns: privileging the white family’s story while relegating the African-American family’s story to background noise.
Matt Damon is well-cast as Gardner Lodge, an Everyman whose lily-white veneer hides a murderous pathology. Gardner’s wife Rose (Moore) is confined to a wheelchair as the result of a car accident, but her twin sister Maggie (also played by Moore) has come to live with the couple to help run the household and look after the Lodges’ son Nicky (Jupe, a real find). The Lodges’ backyard faces that of the newly relocated black family, the Mayers (Westbrook and Burke), and Aunt Maggie encourages 12-year-old Nicky to invite the Mayers’ similarly aged son Andy (Espinosa) to play, which is the only way the two storylines are ever integrated. An odd home invasion at the Lodge house leads to more peculiar events, especially when viewed through the eyes of young Nicky. You can practically feel the moments that might have had a quirkier vibe in the hands of the Coens, who might have also exercised their delicious precision with period details as seen in something like A Serious Man. Still, at least the Lodges and Aunt Maggie are fully developed characters, while the Mayers are only seen going about rote tasks and protecting themselves from white rioters.
Suburbicon’s flaws are a result of its ambitions. Even though the whole thing doesn’t jell, the film is rife with many sharp and funny moments. Like suburbia itself, sometimes the reality ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
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