George Clooney’s longstanding relationship with the Coen brothers has produced some of the actors’ finest work, from his anchoring lead in O Brother, Where Art Thou? to the Cary Grant-warping screwball of Intolerable Cruelty and the self-effacing oddity of his supporting performance in Burn After Reading. Clooney’s dry sense of humor meshes well with the Coens’ own, which makes his heinous adaptation of one of the brothers’ old, unused scripts all the more baffling. With its middle-class caricatures, shaggy-dog narrative unraveling and cynical twists, the film certainly has all the standard beats of a Coens comedy, but it unfolds as if crafted not by a regular collaborator but by someone who only knew of the brothers via IMDb user reviews of their films.

The title refers to the Levittown-esque post-war community in which the film is set, a suburbia so vast and self-contained it practically becomes its own form of metropolis. An opening narration done in the style of an early TV advertisement spotlights the neighborhood’s amenities, and both in and out of this commercial the residents of the town walk around with exaggerated friendliness. Surprise, surprise, beneath this shimmering vision of 1950s capitalist nirvana, however, is a seedy underbelly, and it enters the film in the form of gangsters who break into the house of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) one night and tie up him, his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore) and their son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), before suffocating Nancy with an overdose of chloroform while ransacking the house.

The scene of the break-in shows off Clooney’s knack for good, ol’-fashioned studio work, using deliberate pacing and Robert Elswit’s chiaroscuro cinematography to craft immediate tension when Nicky is roused by his nervous father in the middle of the night. Yet the sharp lurch from the satirically sugar-colored views of Suburbicon to the shadow-drenched quasi-noir of this crime equally exposes the limitations of the director’s perfunctory work behind the camera. For all the talk of the Coens’ supposedly glib irony, they excel at placing their horrors and comedy in equilibrium, never presenting the grotesque as a subversion of surface calm but a fact of life to be either accepted or willfully ignored. This adds extra bite to their humor, but it also creates deceptively complex moral landscapes for characters to navigate. Clooney approaches the material obviously, using the darker side of the community to underline its stale themes of anti-‘50s revisionism instead of to deepen the setting and confuse easy moral judgments.

Thus Clooney weakens the film’s subsequent twist, which sees widower Gardner revealed to have a sinister side of his own. Paired with his late wife’s twin, Margaret (Moore again), Gardner gradually morphs into a monster, terrorizing his grief-stricken, traumatized son into military obedience and gaslighting the boy about details of the crime they witnessed. It’s dark stuff, even by Coens standards, but the actors back away from the full, demented nightmare of the scenario. Damon’s approach to comedy is that of the straight man, perpetually befuddled by his own haplessness. That makes him completely ill-suited to play Gardner, who is the source of so much madness rather than the victim of it. Damon plays Gardner solely as a domestic tyrant, playing the subtext over the text and completely negating the chaos that emanates from his attempts to keep control. Moore, meanwhile, produces yet another misfire of a caricature alongside her recent work in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, turning in a career nadir series of tics and gestures with no underlying unity. If Damon plays his part too dramatically, Moore errs on the side of nonstop farce, walking through life with a frozen rictus that marks her as trouble well before some of the spiraling revelations divulge more about her character.

Gardner and Margaret’s failed dramatic impact is all the more deeply felt when contrasted with Clooney’s principal addition to the moldy screenplay: a subplot involving Suburbicon dealing with racial integration. Early in the film, before the murder that sets the main story in place, the community’s idyllic friendliness is shattered by a black family moving in, swiftly turning neighbors into mobs frothing with resentment by virtue of their existence. At the outset of the film, this family looks like it might share equal billing with the Lodges, and as racial tensions in town escalate in tandem with the increasing mania of the white family, it is clear that Clooney means to illustrate how discrimination pulls all the suspicion and rage onto innocent blacks while the deranged whites literally next door are ignored and respected.

The issue is that the film talks over its people of color, with Mrs. Mayers (Karimah Westbrook) reduced to a few scenes of calmly suffering the abuse thrown at her by others in town while her husband (Leith M. Burke) literally has no lines at all, instead appearing as a grave-faced stoic who silently regards mounting anger. Only their son (Tony Espinosa) has any presence at all, and even then only to represent a hope for a better tomorrow in scenes of him and Nicky playing catch. Clooney’s added subplot reorients the entire film from a toothless satire of Americana and the fantasy of its innate goodness into an equally weak attack on white privilege and racism that is completely undercut by how much the white filmmakers wish to speak on behalf of their black characters.

There are a few scattered bright spots to the film. The one thing Clooney shares with the original writers is an affinity for giving spotlights to character actors, and the film boasts a few strong supporting performances. Glenn Fleshler does his usual shtick as imposing mobster Sloan, casually exerting his sadistic will over others by virtue of his size and power. Oscar Isaac, meanwhile, nearly elevates the final act as Roger, an insurance adjuster who investigates Gardner’s claim on Nancy and finds numerous red flags. Wearing an ingratiating smile on his face as he cajoles unintended slips of the tongue from his clients, Roger is the only character in the film who suggests a deep, multifaceted life lived before the events of the movie. Roger hints at a film with conviction behind its satire, but too often the movie retains only the mean-spiritedness of each character, at once foregrounding the punchline and never truly delivering it.

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