Director George Clooney and star Matt Damon receive top billing, but “Suburbicon” is defined by the recognizable stamp of writers Joel and Ethan Coen, bringing a “Fargo”-like sensibility to this overly ambitious, fitfully successful attempt to filter the not-so-good-old-days of the 1950s through that prism.
Suburbicon is the name of what’s painted as an early version of a Spielberg-like planned community, birthed not long after World War II. A dozen years later, it’s a happy little town – at least, until an African-American family dares to move in, triggering panic among the populace and a community-wide campaign to drive them out.
Yet while the residents focus on that perceived threat with mounting hysteria, they’re missing the monsters living openly among them. And that plot begins with a home-invasion robbery involving Gardner Lodge (Damon), a pillar-of-the-community-type businessman, as well as his wife and sister-in-law (Julianne Moore, in a dual role) and young son Nicky (Noah Jupe).
What ensues from there includes a cascading series of very Coen-esque twists (they share script credit with Clooney and his longtime collaborator Grant Heslov), in what frequently feels like a knowing homage to Alfred Hitchcock as well as such movies as “Double Indemnity.” Moore, in particular, sinks her teeth into those nostalgic aspects of the role, while Oscar Isaac’s later-act arrival as an insurance investigator breathes a welcome dose of life, and dark humor, into the proceedings.
“Suburbicon” gives away the game on its mystery a bit too soon, but it’s still fun watching the various shoes drop. At the same time the concurrent thread, and its overt racial animus, offers a commentary on those pining for America’s past, and a reminder that the black-and-white sitcoms of the ‘50s were monochromatic in more ways than one.
Yet the effort to juxtapose that message with the movie’s more specific and tawdry crime tale creates an at-times awkward mesh, as the two plates grind against each other in a manner that somewhat blunts Clooney’s larger point. That feels particularly true toward the finish, as the movie bores into its central plot – one that, in classic Coen fashion, features escalating levels of grisliness.
Clooney has demonstrated his versatility as a director and willingness to tackle provocative themes, although the results have been decidedly mixed since his early breakthrough with “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Add “Suburbicon” to the qualified-endorsement column – a movie distinguished more by what it tries to do than its accomplishments.
“Suburbicon” premieres Oct. 27 in the U.S. It’s rated R.