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George Clooney and the Coen brothers’ ‘Suburbicon’ is a half-baked mess

By Steve Persall
Matt Damon as Gardner and Julianne Moore as Margaret in Suburbicon." (Paramount Pictures)

George Clooney’s latest directing effort, Suburbicon, is a movie tipping off why it’s going wrong before it actually happens.

Start with a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen feeling like the sort of rehashed previous material that writers might do when they’re blocked or bored and just wishing to type. The Coens wouldn’t dare make Suburbicon since they already made Fargo and Blood Simple before that, plus several films with this one’s absurd 1950s vibe.

Enter Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov, who can’t leave a half-baked script untouched. Somehow, they bake it less. I’m guessing it’s their idea to add a racial discrimination subplot bookending the movie and not adding much between. Their urge to make a progressive statement finds Clooney and Heslov with little to say.

Slightly more developed is Suburbicon’s crime story, a murder-for-profit scheme without a prayer of success. Matt Damon needlessly gained 30 pounds to play Gardner Lodge, a victim of a home invaders who murdered his invalid wife. Her twin sister Margaret (both Julianne Moore) moves into Gardner’s home, ostensibly to help raise his son, Nicky (Noah Jupe). They live in Suburbicon, a place so perfectly planned that naturally there’s unseen tensions roiling.

Nicky soon notices his father and aunt behaving like they’re married. When suspects in his mother’s murder are captured and placed in a police lineup, Gardner and Margaret don’t identify the killers they and Nicky saw. Suburbicon’s suspense springs entirely from Nicky’s fear that he knows too much to live. He’s right.

This stuff is pure Coen brothers, both a tribute to and satire of the overheated noir of James M. Cain in books and Billy Wilder on screen. Gardner’s plot involves cashing in his wife’s life insurance, introducing a claims investigator (underused Oscar Isaac) who’ll tighten the screws.

Gardner’s plot is merely another version of Jerry Lundegaard’s in Fargo; a timid noncriminal hiring two deadly henchmen for dirty work on his wife then watching things spin out of control. Suburbicon is Clooney doing lukewarm Coen brothers material as closely to their style as possible. Imitation isn’t always flattering.

Neither is Clooney’s shameless invoking of bigotry with scant purpose. The neighborhood’s lily-white populace is stunned when the Meyers, an African-American family, moves in. The movie spends five minutes with their unease before shoving the Meyers to a back burner. They’re only here to inspire a third act riot distracting police from nasty things happening down the street at Gardner’s home. Black lives wasted by a movie that doesn’t matter.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.