Right away you can tell something’s amiss with director George Clooney’s “Suburbicon.” Its opening credits take the form of a 1950s promotional filmstrip for the planned community of the title, selling a post-war American dream of white picket fences and manicured lawns.
What’s jarring is that the reel is full of anachronistic digital effects, designed to look chintzy and easily ridiculed without bearing much resemblance at all to actual advertising of the era. This sort of lazy, self-congratulatory posturing permeates the film, as dreadfully miscalculated a studio picture as I’ve seen all year.
“Suburbicon” is a disaster.
Working from an old screenplay the Coen brothers abandoned back in the '80s, the film stars Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge, a suburban schmuck in a gray flannel suit who is up to his ears in debt to the mob. He hires a couple of goons to whack his wheelchair-bound wife (Julianne Moore) for the insurance money, which conveniently frees him up to sleep with her twin sister (also Julianne Moore.) Unfortunately even Gardner’s 6-year-old son Nicky (Noah Jupe) has sniffed out the scheme, which is so screamingly obvious that an ethically challenged claims adjuster played by a preposterously entertaining Oscar Isaac soon shows up at the Lodge’s front door looking for a cut.
The botched plans and incompetent criminals are boilerplate Coens, and it’s probably impossible to sit through “Suburbicon” without noticing that after they scrapped this script a lot of its elements were excavated and refined to far more elegant effect in “Fargo.” Matt Damon’s hapless conspirator feels like a first draft for William H. Macy’s floundering Jerry Lundegaard, a cruel comparison that isn’t helped by the former’s startlingly unimagined performance. I can’t recall ever seeing Damon so unengaged in a film, slab-like and inert inside the boxy ‘50s fashions.
“Suburbicon” lacks the snap of the Coens’ other crime contraptions, which at their best go off like harshly moral Rube Goldberg devices. This early effort is missing that sense of cosmic escalation — it takes forever for things to fall apart and then they all collapse almost instantly. It doesn’t help that Clooney paces the film like a molasses drip, every shot at least twice as long as it needs to be, savoring the overcooked production design and fussy cinematography. Scenes that should zip along go on and on while the actors arrange themselves into artful tableaus. (He drags a quickie sight gag about a poisoned sandwich out for what feels like half-an-hour.) Even a performer as formidable as Julianne Moore is just another prop in this Pleasantville playset, with only Isaac’s shady insurance man bringing any pep to the proceedings in a disappointingly brief cameo.
Clooney’s directorial career has been a bizarre 15 year reverse spiral during which he’s somehow managed to unlearn nearly everything about how to make a movie. His 2002 “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” remains one of the most visually accomplished debuts I’ve ever seen from an actor, spinning “The Gong Show” host Chuck Barris’ mock-autobiography into a sickly hilarious phantasmagoria soaked in sex, guilt and shame. Since then, Clooney’s directorial efforts have steadily sunk from adequate (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) to mediocre (“Leatherheads,” “The Ides of March”) to outright lousy (“The Monuments Men”).
Where “Suburbicon” becomes actively offensive is in Clooney and his regular co-screenwriter Grant Heslov’s addition of an African-American family to this picture’s spoofy shenanigans — provided for the sole purpose of being terrorized by the neighbors next door. Inspired by William and Daisy Myers of Levittown, Pennsylvania — who faced burning crosses, Confederate flags and days and nights of psychological torture for having the audacity to be black in a prosperous suburb — the family here silently suffers in service of ham-fisted satirical aims. We get the point, the first dozen or so times Clooney tries to make it, that while everybody in this neighborhood is worked up about the colored folks moving in, they should really be scared of monsters like Gardner Lodge who are already in their midst.
But there’s something exploitative and gross about Clooney grafting a real-life civil rights struggle onto his jokey spouse-murder farce. He includes actual archival television footage of Southerners blathering about the evils of integration, but the movie isn’t interested enough in this family’s plight to allow them identities. They’re just set decorations placed in the background to underscore the movie’s pious points about hypocrisy, a characteristic of which “Suburbicon” itself quickly begins to stink. After all, if Clooney really cared about William and Daisy Myers he would have written them some lines.