Squandered Suburbicon: How George Clooney wasted a timely tale

George Clooney steps behind the camera for his sixth film, a movie filled with good intentions and bad choices according to Eli Glasner.

Social satire and a true-life tale collide in this unbalanced comedy from George Clooney

Left to right: Julianne Moore as Margaret and Matt Damon as Gardner in Suburbicon. (Paramount Pictures)

As a director and actor, there's an old-fashioned quality to George Clooney.

On the screen he's the matinee movie idol with the smirking silver screen charm.

Behind the camera, Clooney creates films with a palpable tug of nostalgia such as The Monuments Men and Good Night, and Good Luck.

With Suburbicon, Clooney returns to that sense of yearning, but this time there's a dark undercurrent behind the emerald green lawns and white picket fences.

The eerily cheerful poster for George Clooney's sixth film. (Paramount Pictures)

The setting is Suburbicon, one of the many cookie-cutter subdivisions that sprouted up in the post-war boom of the 1950s. This is where we find the Lodge family. Matt Damon plays the doughy husband Gardner, and Julianne Moore appears as his wife Rose, alongside Noah Jupe as their young son Nicky.

Things take a turn when a home invasion leaves Nicky motherless while his father and Uncle Mitch struggle to pick up the pieces. With Gardner dodging phone calls from the suspicious police, and scheming to replace Rose with Margaret — her kinder twin sister — the Leave it To Beaver setting quickly devolves into a bloody mess. 

If the suburban satire seems familiar, perhaps it's because it comes from an unproduced script penned by Clooney's pals the Coen brothers, who excell in serving up bitter slices of American pie.

Suburbicon's secret 

But there's an added ingredient to Suburbicon you won't see in the trailer or poster.

Across from the Lodges, a new family moves in. The Mayers are the first black family to arrive in the subdivision. It doesn't go well. At first Mrs. Mayers gets the cold shoulder at the grocery store. Then the jeering protests start.

Tony Espinosa plays Andy Mayers, the young boy in the besieged family hemmed in by racist neighbours in Suburbicon. (Paramount Pictures)

The Mayers were actually inspired by the true story of the Myers, the black family that moved into Levittown, a Pennsylvania suburb, in 1957. Their arrival caused an uproar, which Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov spot-welded onto the Coen's script.

The result is an unbalanced film that splits its time between Gardner, in a convoluted cat and mouse game with mobsters he owes money to, and the innocent Mayers, struggling to simply stay safe.

Damon and Moore are typically engrossing performers, but there is little redeeming about the cardboard characters they are saddled with. Plus, their predicament seems inconsequential compared to the Mayers, barricaded inside while snarling suburbanites begin lighting torches.

What's worse is the Mayers are given little dialogue. Actors Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke and young Tony Espinosa are simply meant to stoically endure: it's a mute moral weight for this limp satire.

With the events this past summer in Charlottesville, there is an unfortunate timeliness to Suburbicon.

Although the production preceded the violent clashes in Charlottesville, when asked why he added to the Coen Brothers script, Clooney told CBC News he'd been hearing things about scapegoating Mexicans and Muslims and wanted to show audiences that the urge to build walls is nothing new.

But, by keeping the spotlight on Damon and Moore, Clooney puts the fate of the Mayers at the back of bus, squandering a story about intolerance in favour of this mirthless murder comedy.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5*

*Oscar Isaac is quite good as an insurance investigator. Shame about his screen time.

The Suburbicon director and star on making the dark crime comedy and social satire, originally penned by Joel and Ethan Coen. 2:04

About the Author

Eli Glasner

Arts reporter and film critic

Eli Glasner is a national arts reporter and film critic for CBC News. Each Friday he reviews films on CBC News Network as well as appearing on CBC radio programs coast to coast. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ont. to the Oscars red carpet.