Suburbicon
Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore Leith M. Burke, Karimah Westbrook
Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality
1 hr. 44 min.

Considering the big-time Hollywood players who had a hand in Suburbicon, one might think, “What’s not to like?” Matt Damon is such a stalwart of period films, all you have to do is see him in horn-rimmed glasses and a white shirt and you automatically think, “This is 1958.” George Clooney wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov and directed, too. There’s also the tacit participation of the Coen brothers.

Clooney and Heslov have blown holes in the mythology of the 1950s before, in 2004, with the multi-Oscar-nominated Good Night and Good Luck. The thrust of Suburbicon would be to do likewise, puncturing the warm, homey, neighborhood idyll with the reality of bigotry and familial dysfunction on a grand scale. When all is said and done, however, the movie explodes, right along with those fondly remembered 1950s pastoral tableaux of Ozzie and Harriett/Father Knows Best America. Suburbicon is a bomb.

Not that the film doesn’t have moments of humor and genuine intentions. Some of the story is based on the hostility faced by a black family that moved into Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957; the rest on Joel and Ethan Coen’s script about suburban dysfunction, written over 30 years ago (thus the brothers’ writing credit). “Aye,” wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet, “there’s the rub.” The plot of the African-American Mayers family’s integration in Suburbicon seems like just a backdrop to the twists and turns and ultimate violence in the lives of the Lodges, who live next door.

Damon is Gardner Lodge, and Julianne Moore plays both his paralyzed wife, Rose, and her twin sister, Margaret. (Trivia note: Moore played sisters at the start of her career on the long-running soap opera As the World Turns.) Young Noah Jupe is their son, Nicky, who smells a rat when Wise Guys pay a call in the middle of the night to terrorize the family.

As the Lodges face surreal travail, the Mayerses (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) endure catcalls and hatred. Suburbicon then vacillates between 1940s noir, complete with gangsters and creepy insurance men; 1950s racial prejudice; the specter of menace everywhere; and a carnival of barbarity. We see precious little of the Mayerses, except while a screaming race-mob terrorizes them. (To be precise, those mobs were not exclusive to the south.) We never really get to know them, aside from their son, who befriends Nicky.

There is dark satire. Clooney’s sharp sense of playfulness is at work in some places. Contempt for the facade of the 1950s mores is omnipresent, a response, perhaps, to today’s seeming return to intolerance. It can be a quirky film, but minus the belly laughs the Coen brothers offer with films in which they are more heavily invested. There are peculiar scenes, like Damon pedaling a kid’s bike while a mobster pulls alongside in a VW Beetle. It’s amusing, but strange.

Clooney, Heslov, Damon, Moore and the astonishing Jupe as Nicky aim high. But it’s as if Paramount lit the fuse on an old-fashioned cannon, only to have the ball roll out and drop to the ground with a sickening thud. Semi-empty, cavernous theaters will run this film to handfuls of people who expected better. There’s a hint of Coen brothers flavor to Suburbicon, but not the meal.