George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” opens with a beaming, smirking advertisement for the small town of its title — a booming postwar haven of cookie-cutter ranch homes, neatly manicured lawns and pastel-toned automobiles. It’s a sunny, idyllic community that’s in for the mother of all wake-up calls.
The town’s newest residents, Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (played by Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook), are decent, hard-working and determined to mind their own business, but because they have already committed the crime of being black in 1950s America, it’s not long before their presence in the neighborhood brings an angry white mob to their door.
It’s an intriguing, loaded setup, and it happens to be rooted in the real-life tribulations of William and Daisy Myers, who in 1957 became the first black residents of Levittown, Penn. That milestone was followed by months of violent racial unrest that tore apart the formerly all-white community. But in filtering a ripped-from-the-headlines story through the prism of satire, “Suburbicon” winds up squandering much of its power. For all that the movie borrows from history, it conveys little in the way of truth.
In the first five minutes alone there are warning signs that Clooney’s weakness for loud comic exaggeration might wind up smothering both his premise and his point. The smug voice-over introduction, the overbearing jauntiness of Alexandre Desplat’s score, the sitcom-ready shell shock we see in the Suburbicon residents’ faces: It’s all grotesquely unsubtle filmmaking in a picture whose takedown of Eisenhower-era white supremacy isn’t exactly the stuff of nuance to begin with.
Perhaps the most mystifying thing about “Suburbicon” is that, having introduced a sympathetic set of characters in a dangerously fraught situation, the story proceeds to treat the Mayers family as if they were the most uninteresting people in town. Rather than granting us an intimate glimpse behind the clapboard fence that pops up around their front yard, we find our attention diverted toward the house next door, where a frowning businessman named Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) lives with his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), and their young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe, a find).
Rose, paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident, relies on her twin sister, Margaret (Moore again), to help keep the household running smoothly. But smoothness is not in the cards, especially when two chloroform-wielding mobsters (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) turn up one night and set a lethal chain of events in motion.
Imagine if “Far From Heaven” got knocked up by “Double Indemnity” and then came down with sodium hydroxide poisoning, and you’ll have some idea of what happens next in the Lodge household, which is soon filled with enough tortured schemes, wink-wink coincidences and grisly eruptions of violence to furnish a very bad Coen brothers comedy.
Which, in a sense, is exactly what “Suburbicon” is. The Lodges’ story has its roots in a screenplay that Joel and Ethan Coen wrote in 1986 — the same year, incidentally, that gave us David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” the greatest dark-side-of-suburbia movie ever made. In dusting off the script, Clooney and his longtime writing partner, Grant Heslov (who are credited as screenwriters along with the Coens) opted to mix in the Levittown unrest as a way to update and flesh out the material for 2017.
Indictments of white privilege don’t get much more extreme or direct than this. They also don’t get much more condescending.
For a while, at least, the unrepentant nastiness of the plotting and the intense commitment of the actors are enough to sustain you through the proceedings. You may feel a rush of pity for Moore, whose stylized luminosity has been far better served in other ’50s settings, and especially for Damon, whose handsome features seem almost putrefied with self-loathing.
You might also perk up a bit when a fast-talking Oscar Isaac shows up as a wily insurance claims investigator, or whenever Gary Basaraba pops into the frame as Nicky’s affectionate Uncle Mitch, a towering beacon of decency in a sea of bad vibes. Most of all, perhaps, you feel curious about how the filmmakers intend to resolve their narrative experiment — how they will conjoin a snarky, nihilistic black comedy with a grimly earnest essay on America’s race problem, then and now.
The only link between the two households is the sweet, unforced friendship that develops between Nicky and the Mayerses’ son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), which mildly alleviates the relentless, horrifying traumas to which Nicky is forced to bear witness at home. From time to time, the Lodges’ high jinks are meaningfully contrasted with brief shots of the Mayers family doing their downtrodden, salt-of-the-earth thing, even after their car is set ablaze and rocks start pelting their windows.
The movie’s point is clear: While the innocent black family endures a mob onslaught, the psychotic white chuckleheads next door all but get away with murder. Emerging in the shadow of the violent demonstrations by white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Va. — events that transpired, it’s worth noting, long after the film finished shooting — the ugly anti-integration rhetoric we hear in “Suburbicon” can’t help but acquire a topical residue. Indictments of white privilege don’t get much more extreme or direct than this.
They also don’t get much more condescending. The filmmakers have lavished abundant care on every colorful detail of their Atomic Age aesthetic — an impressive alchemy achieved by Robert Elswit’s cinematography, James D. Bissell’s production design and Jenny Eagan’s costumes — but their fatal miscalculation is to reduce the Mayers family to a similarly decorative function. Treating black characters as a symbol of unalloyed goodness isn’t, in the end, much more progressive than denouncing them as everything that’s wrong with this country.
This isn’t the first time that Clooney, having long settled into his role as an elder statesman of Hollywood liberalism, has struggled to translate his political eloquence into persuasive cinema. It’s been 12 years since his lone directorial triumph, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which beautifully merged an elaborate 1950s re-creation with a passionate defense of democratic freedoms. Since then, whether mired in the self-conscious political allegory of “The Ides of March” or the sprightly beat-the-Nazis caper of “The Monuments Men,” the director has tended to sacrifice dramatic conviction and storytelling verve on the altar of his good intentions.
Clooney is after something appreciably darker and riskier in “Suburbicon.” He wants to both indulge and critique the vile, amoral stupidity of his characters, to draw us into a moral dead zone that, he insists, might prove instructive and even edifying. But it would require a filmmaker of either greater intellectual distance or tonal finesse to illuminate the toxic, ever-present legacy of white supremacy rather than merely restaging it, or to turn this kind of cut-rate misanthropy into art.
Rating: R, for violence, language and some sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: In general release