A truly nasty piece of work, Suburbicon sees a bunch of candidly left-leaning movie stars doing their best to out-awful each other. George Clooney, working behind the scenes as director and co-screenwriter, dusted off an old Joel and Ethan Coen screenplay set in a 1950s suburban tract community and detailing a murderous insurance scam gone wrong. Then, with writing and producing partner Grant Heslov, he grafted on a slow-burn subplot that tackles racism, and as such is meant to resonate with contemporary U.S. anxieties. Yet the result is a hysterical and simplistic—if still in-the-moment compelling—parody of bourgeois American greed and ignorance.
Black lives don’t matter in Un-Pleasantville, a.k.a. Suburbicon, the Ike-era hamlet introduced via a mock-promo reel that promises safe streets, good schools, and a diverse populace (New Yorkers and Mississippians—of the Caucasian persuasion, that is—side by side!). But when the first African-American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Meyers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook), and their son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), move into the neighborhood, tensions begin to rise among the all-white masses. That’s just a side drama, however, to the main attraction, which is the hustle cooked up by seemingly virtuous patriarch Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his plucky sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore), with whom he’s in love, to off the latter’s twin sister/Gardner’s wife (also Moore) and collect the insurance money.
The duo’s twisty, twisted scheme is seen mainly through the eyes of Gardner’s young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), who is, like the audience, initially in the dark about his dad and aunt’s skullduggery. But the sins of the father eventually come to the fore, as they must, and in the bloodiest of ways. Jupe is so good at delineating his character’s slowly corrupted innocence that, for a while, it keeps the film’s shallowness at bay. All the better to revel in Robert Elswit’s sun-dappled, saturated color palette and the heightened depravity of Moore, Damon, and, in a very funny two-scene role, Oscar Isaac as an insurance agent with both a nose for flimflammery and a hunger for ill-gotten gains.
Everyone here is a bastard, worthy of being shot, stabbed, blown up, or poisoned with lye. Everyone, that is, except for the Meyers family and Nicky. The Meyerses are Teflon saints, noble constructs without any human shades who exist purely to act dignified in the face of the most virulent behaviors, be it a passive-aggressive encounter on the grocery checkout line or while hiding in their home from a bellicose mob. When one of the clannish Suburbicon residents hangs a Confederate flag on the Meyers’s house, you want to slap Clooney upside the head for his hamfisted attempt at sociopolitical currency. And in Nicky, Clooney sees hope for a future generation that can hopefully move past the all-consuming bigotries of its ancestors. Though to this end, the film’s final, meant-to-be-inspirational image only manages to attain Stanley Kramer-ish levels of naïveté and obtuseness.