“Suburbicon,” directed by George Clooney, grafts two distinctly different types of genres: the socially conscious race relations movie and grisly film noir. It’s an uneasy combo made even more so by the fact that the film noir stuff has all the juices.
This lopsided melange started out as a noirish 1986 script by Joel and Ethan Coen that they were possibly going to direct, with a role for Clooney, after the success of their debut film, “Blood Simple.” That movie never happened, but Clooney, on the lookout for new material, remembered the script and took it on for this latest project, but with a heavy rewrite by himself and Grant Heslov introducing the racism angle.
That angle centers on the late 1950s community of Suburbicon, a lily-white Northern town where the mailmen are always cheery and the picket fences glow bright in the sunlight. Into this Eden, which Clooney initially portrays as almost comically idyllic, moves its sole black family, the Meyerses, who are almost immediately rousted. During the day, they are mostly avoided or condescended to in the streets and in the stores by their fellow Suburbiconites. In their home at night, they are regaled outside by mobs of venomous, insult-spewing neighbors. The point is made: This might as well be Mississippi.
Mr. and Mrs. Meyers (played by Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) and their young son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), are loosely based on a real black family that suffered a similar indignity in the late ’50s in Levittown, Pa. But the odd thing about “Suburbicon” is that, despite Clooney’s do-gooder instincts, the movie is almost entirely about a murder plot gone awry involving the seemingly straight-arrow Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), who lives next door to the Meyerses, and his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), who is killed in a home invasion by marauding thugs. Gardner soon takes up with his wife’s identical twin sister, Margaret (also played by Moore), and it gradually becomes clear, even to his young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), that something awful is afoot with good old Gardner.
The dividing line between the garish, nasty-funny Coen brothers material and the socially conscious Clooney inserts is so sharp that, at times, I felt as if I were watching two different movies that somehow got enmeshed: “Blood Simple” meets “Loving,” maybe? Clearly Clooney was trying for something metaphoric here. He wants to show how the neighborhood is so racist that the escalating murderousness in the Lodge household barely registers. The depravity is crowded out by the mob’s blind hatred of black people.
This might have looked good on paper, but in the film, it just looks like the story of the Meyerses was shoehorned into the story line to make polemical points.
And what of the noir material? Much of it plays like second-tier Coen brothers noxiousness. It’s obvious why they didn’t direct this movie, as originally written, themselves: They’ve already made it (more than once). This is not to say that the pestilence lacks the Coens’ trademark comic ghastliness and smarty-pants zingers. Altogether they make the film borderline-worth seeing. The actors all seem to be in on the (sick) joke. Damon spends the movie looking appropriately flummoxed as his ruinous plans go awry; little Jupe is convincingly precocious; Moore, with her alabaster skin and lacquered ’50s do, seems shellacked by villainy. Glenn Fleshler, as one of the marauding thugs, is a virtuoso at heavy menace. As an insurance investigator with a nose for scams, Oscar Isaac brings an adrenaline jolt to his scenes. (The obvious parallel here to the classic noir “Double Indemnity” is intentional.)
Ultimately, though, Clooney is too conventional a filmmaker for the wacko genre-mashing he’s attempting here. He’s lifting the rock of white suburbia in order to reveal all the creepy-crawlies underneath, but the ploy is too thuddingly obvious. Compare this film with Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” in which an interracial couple enters a bleeding-heart liberal bastion that turns out to be like something out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” That film was funny, scary, goofy, and pointedly political. It’s one of the most original movies ever made in the United States about the crazymaking underpinnings of racism, and yet there isn’t a polemical bone in its body. “Suburbicon,” by contrast, never jells. Good intentions are not enough. Grade: C+ (Rated R for violence, language, and some sexuality.)