In 1957, William and Daisy Myers became the first Black couple to move into post-war suburban Levittown, Pennsylvania — a moment that initiated a vicious citywide racial conflict that lasted for months. George Clooney’s latest directorial outing, “Suburbicon,” is loosely based on the history of Levittown’s racial tension, which serves as a plot thread through the film’s murder-mystery narrative.
The dark comedy — co-penned by Clooney and frequent collaborators Grant Heslov and the Coen brothers— successfully features multiple moments of sharp, Hitchcockian satire set against a strikingly retro visual atmosphere. But the script centralizes a clumsy, predictable whodunit about an upper middle class white family over a far more interesting — and important — tale of historical upper-class racism. “Suburbicon” ultimately only partially succeeds in its attempts at dark humor, falling short of both intriguing crime thriller and potent racial allegory.
“Suburbicon” begins in 1947, in a polished, self-proclaimed housing community of the same name, a “town of great wonder and excitement” filled with wealthy white folks from across the United States. When the Meyers — a Black family — move into town, the white residents of Suburbicon rally together against the infiltration of their pristine neighborhoods by those unlike them.
As Suburbicon is enveloped by racial tensions, the Meyers’ neighbors, the Lodges, must deal with their own unfortunate circumstances. One night, two mobsters enter the home of Gardner (Matt Damon), Rose (Julianne Moore) and young Nicky (Noah Jupe) Lodge, robbing the family and leaving Rose for dead. Shortly after, Margaret (Julianne Moore, again), Rose’s twin sister, takes over her role. As the Lodges adjust to life without Rose, Nicky senses the unusual behavior of his father and aunt; his perceptions of his family and the pristine little suburb around him gradually wither away to reveal something far more sinister at work.
The casting of “Suburbicon” is both deliberate and subversive, with the typically likeable Damon and Moore portraying morally ambiguous characters. The most impressive performance in the film, however, belongs to Jupe, whose role becomes increasingly dynamic with the rising anxiety of the film — making Nicky a surprising but sympathetic protagonist.
In addition to its remarkable central performances, “Suburbicon” stunningly recreates the mid-twentieth century suburban atmosphere. From the vivid hues to the impeccable costumes, the film transports its audience into the space of a picturesque, retro world that leaves no room for error. Suburbicon is a town built on artifice — from the residents’ consistently fashionable attire, to the perfectly lined-out neighborhoods, to the routine small-talk between co-workers. While Clooney has previously utilized visuals to define an era of American history in the 2005 film “Good Night, and Good Luck,” his employment of a retro visual aesthetic in “Suburbicon” even more impressively highlights the anxiety underlying the apparent comfort and conformity of 20th century suburban America.
While the visual aspect of the film is commendable, “Suburbicon” doesn’t provide its audience with thoughts on suburban culture that haven’t already been explored in depth already in films like 1986’s “Blue Velvet” or 1998’s “Pleasantville.” From a narrative standpoint, the only consistent element in the film is its tone — a thoroughly Coen-esque brand of off-kilter comedy that keeps the audience invested. Besides that, however, “Suburbicon” lacks a cohesive or provocative message; with a scattered murder mystery, it strays too far from its original setup as an allegorical parallel to a story of racism, failing to convey a definitive argument on suburban racial privilege.
The film’s glaring fault is in its pseudo-intellectual, shallow storytelling, which — when given the film’s creative and material potential — largely falls flat. It has all the makings of an excellent dark comedy, but fails to follow through on its clever premise. Rather than profound, the film comes off as lazy, as the audience is left to put the pieces of the film together for itself.
While entertaining in parts and visually appealing throughout, “Suburbicon” never becomes a thoroughly satisfying social satire. It’s easy to get caught up in the A-list cast and the darkly comedic tone — but unlike Suburbicon, “Suburbicon” doesn’t seem to have much underneath its surface at all.
Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected].