In the canon of Coen Brothers films, “Suburbicon” is a short story.
Hardly as epic as “No Country for Old Men” or as quirky as “Raising Arizona” or “Fargo,” it doesn’t quite have the same feel. Part of the reason could be George Clooney. He's the director, not the brothers from Minnesota who just co-wrote this.
Set in a planned community, circa 1959, the film suggests life is idyllic until a black family moves in. Then, racist tendencies come out, protests begin and the white-picket-fence world begins to fade. In the one home that appears sympathetic to the newcomers, plenty of trouble is afoot.
There, robbers have broken in, tied them up and knocked them out with chloroform.
The dose used on the matriarch (Julianne Moore) is lethal. When she dies, the husband (Matt Damon), his son (Noah Jupe) and sister-in-law (also Moore) are left to pick up the pieces.
The sister-in-law, however, does more than just comfort the grieving widower. In no time, we become as suspicious as an insurance agent and wonder what’s really cooking in her kitchen.
Clooney does a great job recreating the era. His tract town looks just as we remember; his interiors reek of Betty Crocker and Donna Reed. While Moore toys with “Suburbicon’s” “Vertigo” origins, Damon attacks this head on and doesn’t always give it the slipperiness of other Coen efforts. William H. Macy, for example, had a similar track in “Fargo,” but never looked confident. Damon always seems trustworthy.
When Oscar Isaac turns up – as an insurance agent investigating an unusual claim – he finds flaws in the sister-in-law’s story and isn’t afraid to pounce. Faster than you can say “wood chipper,” the guy is gone and the plot thickens.
Because Moore looks like she’s in a different film than everyone else (and wears such bad wigs it’s hard to believe she isn’t up to something), “Suburbicon” doesn’t have the sly edge it needs. Rather than live in the world he has created, Clooney frequently exits, making this a muddled message for everyone. He handles the retribution portion nicely, but doesn’t really come to a conclusion about the masses who storm the neighbors’ home.
Jupe, a charismatic kid, is the best “Suburbicon” has to offer. He absorbs everything that happens, managing to look more realistic than the white bread on the table. His eyes reflect what we’re thinking; his reflexes are spot on.
When we see how he winds up, we want to learn more.
Short on laughs (which you think you’re getting from the bouncy opening), “Suburbicon” wants to be a slice of social commentary. It comes close, but the most frightening stuff is what we see on the homes' TV sets when residents don’t filter a thing they’re thinking.