George Clooney's "Suburbicon" is a deeply unfortunate film that tries to do something very difficult by pretending--foolishly--that it's easy. There was a way to get it to work, which I'll get to eventually, but Clooney has become almost literally tone deaf in the movies he directs.
What the movie tries to do is combine two stories: 1) a black comic tale of murder and infidelity in '50s suburbia originally written by the Coen Brothers in 1986, about the time their first film "Blood Simple" came out and 2) an adaptation of the real story of a black 1957 family in Pennsylvania who moved into a suburban neighborhood to find their hostile white neighbors eventually turning into a riot.
It isn't that you couldn't make satiric hay out of both stories, mind you. It's just that it's fearfully difficult to do it while telling both stories together contrapuntally.
The family in the Coen Brothers tale features Matt Damon, Julianne Moore in double roles--as both Damon's sick wife and her sister--and Nook Jupe as their cute young son who'd really like to make friends with the black kid who just moved in next door if only the whole neighborhood would stop wanting the new family gone.
We can't forget that Clooney has, in fact, done some suave and amazing work as a director. His Ed Murrow film "Good Night and Good Luck" was a bit naive, maybe, but affecting nevertheless. His Chuck Barris movie, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," was one of the best American films of the past 25 years.
Old Coen Brother scripts don't always spoil. Sometimes they improve with age. "The Big Lebowski" was originally written at the time of the Coen's "Barton Fink" (my favorite Coen brother movie), but when the two brothers finally turned it into a classic years later, it was a fantasy about bowling and American political buffoonery among loud and testy guys with way too much time on their hands.
There are good reasons why the Coens never made this movie. They saw something they couldn't fix onscreen so they left it unmade. It may have been nothing more complicated than it being too short to turn into a full-sized movie.
They were right to leave it unproduced. Clooney was wrong to put it together with some very dark comedy about the kind of gallopingly stupid racism that overtook neighborhoods in the precursor to the Civil Rights era.
The Coens' murder tale eventually turns into a yarn about cops and gangsters and infidelity and paternal grotesquerie that you'd find in far superior form in their movie "Fargo." The other story--explosive race relations in de facto segregated America--should have had its own movie and its own tone. It's too large a subject and too current still.
So how could this movie have been made to work? Appropriate music was the answer. The right music--chronological accurate pop score,for instance, as is heard all too little-- might have done the trick. Unfortunately the music score Clooney commissioned is mostly by the dreadful, but mysteriously famous, Alexander Desplat.
This is now the second time director Clooney has chosen Desplat to score a film and wound up doing it grievous harm. The last Clooney film with a Desplat score was "Monuments Men". His score here is, too, among the worst I've ever encountered. It does almost as much damage here as it did to "Monuments Men."
One true tale that exemplified the time might have helped. It is absolutely true that when Nat "King" Cole's career began to catch fire with the public in L.A. he and his family moved to an upscale, all-white neighborhood while his new neighbors had a secret meeting excluding the Coles to discuss getting rid of their new racial intruders.
On the night of the neighborhood conclave, Cole and his wife Maria showed up uninvited and explained that they heard there was a neighborhood meeting about how to keep "undesirable elements" out of their exclusive neighborhood. As they explained, "we just wanted to help."
2 stars (out of four)
Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Jack Conley and Nook Jupe in George Clooney's dark satiric tale of racism and murder in '50s suburbia. 104 minutes. Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality.