George Clooney directs, Matt Damon stars and the Coen brothers’ macabre sense of humor is very much a part of the package. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
“Suburbicon” has a message about first impressions: Don’t trust them.
First impression of the ’50s planned community of the title: Introduced in a chirpy jingle, it’s a clean, safe, placid place to raise a family. Streets are wide. Houses are tidy. Neighbors are friendly. Faces are white.
Just below the surface though, it’s a cauldron of festering racism. When a black family moves in, that cauldron boils over.
Movie Review ★★★
‘Suburbicon,’ with Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac. Directed by George Clooney, from a screenplay by Clooney, Joel and Ethan Coen and Grant Heslov. 105 minutes. Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality. Several theaters.
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First impression of a seemingly typical ’50s white nuclear family living in that neighborhood: Pretty much sweetness and light, with dad (Matt Damon) holding down a good executive-level job, while the home fires are tended by his sister-in-law (Julianne Moore), who helps to care for her twin sister (Moore), in a wheelchair as the result of an auto accident, and the couple’s well-behaved young son (Noah Jupe).
Just below the surface, well …
Know this: Although George Clooney is the director and a co-writer of the screenplay (along with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov), the two most important names on the list of key production personnel are Joel and Ethan Coen. For all intents and purposes, this is a Coen brothers picture.
In many ways, it’s as harsh and pitiless as their “No Country for Old Men,” achieving that level of hair-raising darkness with a brutal home-invasion sequence near the beginning.
And in terms of its characters, it harks back to the Coens’ breakout feature, “Blood Simple,” where bungling criminality on the part of half-bright people has fatal consequences.
Oh, and one more thing: The Coens’ macabre sense of humor — also a feature of, among others, “Blood Simple,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “Burn After Reading” (starring, Clooney, as it happens) — is very much a part of the package. The abrupt removal of a character via a car crash is a trigger for startled laughter. And the way they weaponize the humble peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich is, in a sick and twisted sort of way, pretty funny.
“Suburbicon” is essentially two movies coexisting uneasily side by side. There’s the Clooney/Heslov skewering of Eisenhower-era complacency and hypocrisy in their dramatization of the white mob besieging the black family. (That conflict was patterned after an actual incident in the planned community of Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957.) Both sides are not well-defined. The white mob brays and riots while the black family is almost saintly in its forbearance.
The Coen brothers’ section, derived from a script they sent to Clooney in the late 1990s, is much more impactful, with Damon giving a performance that renders his character downright chilling and Jupe doing heart-rending work as a child emotionally buffeted by the grievously flawed behavior of the adults who are supposed to love and protect him.
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Clooney — having acted in four previous Coen brothers movies (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Intolerable Cruelty,” “Burn After Reading” and “Hail, Caesar!”) — is so adept at directing their work. Clearly, these guys are all on the same mordant wavelength.