Surburbicon is a great place to raise a family, so we’re cheerily told. It is 1959 and this sumptuously shot, idyllic, all-white American suburb is full of identical, immaculate houses, neat picket fences and manicured lawns.
It is a seemingly perfect and happy community — that is, until a black family, the Mayers, move in and suddenly things are not so rosy. A petition is put together and, at a noisy town hall meeting, the message is clear: we don’t want them here. The mood soon turns violent and the family is subject to an angry, Confederate-flag waving mob demonstrating outside their home. The film is, in part, based on a 1957 true-life crime case in Levittown, Pennsylvania.
But this is only half the story in George Clooney’s latest film as director. Surburbicon, a dark, crime, comic satire, is essentially two stories trying to merge into one. Clooney, along with co-writer Grant Heslov, has adapted an unproduced 1980s Coen brothers script and combined it with his own screenplay (all four are credited).
The main plot stars Matt Damon as dependable, white-collar executive, Gardner Lodge, who lives in Surburbicon with his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore) — left wheelchair-bound after an accident — and their young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose’s sister, Maggie, also played by Moore, is a frequent visitor. One night, Nicky is woken when two thugs — who appear to want to loot their home — invade the Lodges’ house. It is an invasion with disastrous consequences.
All is not what it seems, events increasingly spiral out of control and the story takes a noirish and macabre turn.
But there are some notable, entertaining moments that bear the Coen brothers’ hallmark. A police chief repeatedly tells Gardner that he thought he was Jewish because of his last name (Gardner tirelessly reminds him that he is an Episcopalian). Similarly Coenesque is the razor-sharp sequence between Maggie and the fast-talking, insurance claims investigator played by Oscar Isaac, who breezes in, sniffing out “red flags” in the Lodge household.
The criminal, white aspect of the story is engrossing with plenty of surprises but it has little or no connection to the underdeveloped, racial narrative taking place next door. Surprisingly for Clooney, the politicised strand is far the weaker.
Clooney’s presentation of the dark side of 1950s white, middle class suburbia is certainly effective and Surburbicon’s strong cast holds the film together but, for a black comedy, there are few laughs.