Run time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Stars: Matt Damon, Oscar Isaac, Julianne Moore
Director: George Clooney
George Clooney, 56, claims that nobody wants to see him kiss the girl on screen anymore, so he has turned director and scored three critical hits (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; Good Night, and Good Luck; and The Ides of March). Fans had high hopes that Suburbicon would be his fourth, because it's his revision of a 1986 Coen brothers script that sounds like their 1996 black comedy, Fargo. Matt Damon plays a dumb guy who hires two still-dumber hit men to kill his wife (Julianne Moore) for insurance money, so he can marry his wife's identical twin, his mistress (also played by Moore). If you like dark, quirky Coen brothers satires about social-caricature characters attempting to be master criminals, you may appreciate Clooney's stab at becoming a third Coen brother.
Suburbicon was inspired by Richard Crafts, a Pan American pilot whose flight attendant wife demanded a divorce and child custody after her private detective photographed him smooching another flight attendant. Crafts put his wife into a wood chipper and was convicted of murder based on less than an ounce of her remains. Clooney could have made a political movie about this guy, a gun nut and part-time cop with a basement arsenal who began his career as a pilot for the CIA's Air America, which itself inspired Mel Gibson's 1990 Air America and, more recently, Tom Cruise's American Made.
Instead, Clooney's killer is a cartoonish embodiment of wicked, shallow, conformist, dumb American suburban culture of the turn of the 1960s. Moore's eerie precision in lampooning a Feminine Mystique–style housewife reminds one of Laura Linney in The Truman Show. Her gleaming lipstick looks poisonous, and when she feeds you a white-bread sandwich, think twice before biting. Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell are menacingly amusing as Mutt and Jeff–like bus drivers who moonlight as Damon's hit men. Noah Jupe is fine as Damon's smart young son who sees right through him. Gary Basaraba (Mad Men, Fried Green Tomatoes) is aces as the kid's nutty Uncle Mitch, a buffoon who may not be quite as harmless as Damon's character condescendingly assumes. Best of all, and worth seeing the film for, is Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis) as a wisecracking, live-wire insurance investigator who can sniff a lie a thousand miles away and may be as corrupt inside as the entire society he's part of.
Clooney does OK with the murder plot, but he blows it by adding a subplot about an all-white housing development freaking out when the first black couple move in. The storyline was inspired by the real-life black Myers family, who moved to all-white Levittown, Pa., in 1957. As in Suburbicon, their mailman mistook Mrs. Myers for a nanny and told their neighbors, and then a racist mob spent months burning crosses and throwing rocks and lit cigarettes at the Myerses' house, flaunting Confederate flags, making death threats. The family's deliveries of bread, milk and oil were cut off, and Levittown security seemed undevoted to their defense.
This, too, might've been a good movie on its own, but it does not blend with the murder story, and the Coens' jokey style doesn't fit with the racism critique. It's as if somebody edited two different films together. The crazy-racists part seems sentimental and stompingly obvious, its moral points like nuking fish in a barrel. Karimah Westbrook is good as Mrs. Myers, projecting a calm, patient, kindhearted outrage, and she deserves a more complex role (like the one in the upcoming biopic Bolden, in which she plays the mother of the New Orleans jazz legend Buddy Bolden, confined for life to the Louisiana Insane Asylum).
Wood-chipper killer Crafts is eligible for parole in 2021, and Clooney won't spend long in director's jail for this flop. He nimbly picks up tricks from the great directors he's brilliantly served — Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne, the Coens — and the pantheon of classic Hollywood directors, whom he's studied with deep intelligence. He is well on the way to developing the style that may one day be known as the "Clooney touch": deftly witty, politically angry, steeped in cinema and history. One day he'll be an American master in the directors pantheon, I think. But Suburbicon won't be the film to put him there.