by George Wolf
Ah, the good old days.
In these turbulent times, who doesn’t long for a return to that simple life, when everything was just so peachy and America was…what’s that word? Great!
Suburbicon is hardly the first film to cast satirical aspersions onto idealized visions of 1950s Americana, but few have created such a biting bridge to the present while doing it. Just when you might think it’s being too obvious in its messaging, the powerhouse pedigrees of almost everyone involved remind you there must be something more at work here.
There is, something that’s often deliciously dark, twisted and satisfying.
The village of Suburbicon is peddled as the pinnacle of modern living for the upwardly mobile families of the 1950s. It’s a community proud of its diversity…until a black family moves in. Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) are careful to mind their own business, even as the angry crowd outside begins to grow.
Right next door to the new unwelcome neighbors, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), sister-in-law Margaret (also Julianne Moore) and son Nicky (Noah Jupe) are dealing with the consequences of a violent home invasion. An insurance claim follows, which brings a visit from an eager fraud investigator (a scene-stealing Oscar Isaac).
It’s a film loosely loosely built from the story of the first black family to live in a 1957 Pennsylvania suburb, as director George Clooney and frequent writing partner Grant Heslov resurrect a decades old script from the masterful Coen Brothers to mine both the ridiculous and the profane.
Connecting the Lodge and Mayers households only through the uneasy friendship of Nicky and young Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa), we see the Suburbicon residents threatened not by the dangerous lunacy of their white neighbors, but by the mere existence of anything that disturbs their own privilege.
The eye for crisp detail that helped Clooney nab both writing and directing Oscar noms for Good Night, and Good Luck is on full display here, along with stellar performances from a standout ensemble.
But Clooney’s heart is on his sleeve as usual, and surrounding a tale of racial violence with such kitsch and exaggerated satire brings a danger of condescension that the film keeps at arm’s length through a commitment to its long game.
Beyond the tired metaphors of fences and observant children lies the point that this is the history so many want to “take America back” to, and it was far from great.