The perfect veneer of 1950s suburban life is a mask for the rot and hypocrisy festering underneath the trimmed lawns in director George Clooney’s “Suburbicon,” a derivative and somewhat edgeless satire.
The script, credited to Joel and Ethan Coen, Clooney and Grant Heslov, is 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, and the community is not thrilled — eyebrows are raised, meetings are held (with middle-aged white men in flat tops and wire-rimmed glasses shouting at one another). Crowds gather outside the Meyers house until it becomes a mob.
The plight of the Meyers family is just a side story, though, a tacked-on and bluntly conceived commentary on how this community is too distracted by its 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 son, Nicky (Noah Jupe) are terrorized in their own home by two goons with unclear motives.
This home invasion 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 steals the show as a three-steps-ahead insurance agent. Westbrook does wonders as Mrs. Meyers with not much screen time or dialogue. And Jupe proves to be a fantastic 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 underwhelming. Damon plays Gardner as a 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 1950s woman.
Of all the periods that Clooney could have chosen to skewer, it feels toothless to take on 1950s suburbia. Certainly there are meant to be parallels with today, but it is too obvious to be subversive or revealing, and doesn’t go far enough to satirize the hypocritical social mores of the time. Thus, we’re left with the plot, which moves along in a 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?
Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality. 1:44. Fayette, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond.