George Clooney’s statement-making black comedy Suburbicon, playing in competition here at the Venice Film Festival, is a misfire on nearly all counts. There are times when festival movies leave you wondering what, exactly, the filmmaker is trying to say. With Suburbicon, there’s not much doubt: The movie’s themes are as obvious and slick as the fins of a Cadillac, polished to an artificially bright gleam. It’s a nearly two-hour-long advertisement for its own progressive ideals. You can believe in the ideals—but you don’t have to like the movie’s way of selling them.
There’s no doubt that Clooney cares deeply about those ideals, and about the picture overall: The script is by Clooney, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Clooney’s frequent collaborator Grant Heslov. Although it’s a reworking of an old, unproduced Coen Brothers script, the movie’s core elements are painfully relevant today: It’s an indictment of 1950s-era American complacency and bigotry that’s clearly intended to echo our current horror show. Matt Damon stars as Gardner Lodge, a solid suburban family man circa 1955. His sweet wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), the mother of the couple’s cute, astute kid, Nicky (Noah Jupe) and the anchor of the family, is wheelchair-bound after a car accident. (Turns out Gardner was behind the wheel.) Rose’s lookalike sister, Margaret (also Julianne Moore), is very close with the family—perhaps a bit too close.
Meanwhile, a black family—Mr. and Mrs. Meyers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) and their young son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), have moved in next door. The families in this all-white enclave don’t want them there, and an angry, violent mob surrounds their house. That subplot serves as a handy, facile contrast: Mr. and Mrs. Meyers are quiet, hardworking people and excellent citizens. Meanwhile, the upstanding, respectable (not to mention white) Gardner Lodge is a psychotic mess—he’s the real menace to society here. The irony machine grinds through the movie so loudly that you might end up with a migraine.
Clooney, cinematographer Robert Elswit and production designer James D. Bissell give Suburbicon a great look. Its cool, bright colors leap straight from the illustrations in a Dick and Jane reader, precise in their rendering of oppressive ’50s perfectionism. But Clooney—who has visited the era before, in his superb, smart Cold War drama Good Night and Good Luck (2005)—fails to keep the movie’s tone under control. The movie’s humor, if you want to call it that, is Coen-inflected: In other words, it’s arch and winking, self-aware every moment. The filmmakers never let us forget how hip they are to humanity’s dark side, and their hyperawareness is more wearying than it is illuminating.
Suburbicon is unpleasant to watch. Six-year-old Nicky is emotionally terrorized, repeatedly, so the movie can make its points. If that’s your idea of a good time, then this is your movie. But most significantly, Suburbicon is hardly about the Meyers family and what they suffer at the hands of their angry white neighbors—they’re barely in it, except to serve the machinery of the movie’s message-laden agenda. There’s something distasteful about using ‘50s bigotry as a convenient plot element. Until fairly recently, many average, well-meaning Americans believed that white supremacy had been relegated to the fringe. The violence in Charlottesville—and even just the fact that so many righteous white supremacists showed up, as if the rally was just business as usual for them—made us realize how wrong we’d been.
The angry white Suburbiconites who storm the Meyers’ house have made up a manifesto stating their right to live “where we want and with whom we want.” It ends with the words “We shall overcome,” a naked co-opting of the most famous, and the most potent, Civil Rights slogan. We’re supposed to be horrified by this twisting of language and meaning—we should be. But it’s one of those overscripted movie moments that hits like a fist-sized hailstone, and the movie’s wobbly, know-it-all jokiness only makes things worse. There’s probably a good dark comedy to be made from, or about, our current nightmare of ignorance, hatred and bigotry. But don’t make it cute. America’s not in the mood.