Welcome to Clooney’s Suburbicon, a self-contained town of peace and prosperity. Here there’s community, wellbeing, and absolutely no racism, murders, and poisoned peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, no siree!
For better or for worse, peanut butter and jelly are the only two components that go well together in this movie - Clooney has decided to smoosh together his adaptation of a botched Coen Brothers script with a study on racism in an idyllic town ‘tainted’ by the presence of its first black family. The two don’t exactly work in tandem with one another, which, paradoxically may be exactly why they do.
More on that later: first, the botched Coen's script. Matt Damon and his family - his wife and her sister (both Julianne Moore) and their son, who is largely used as the narrative’s primary perspective - are terrorised for reasons not yet made clear by two thugs. Damon’s wife is the unlucky victim, which is just as well really - while two Julianne Moores for the price of one is usually a good deal, their scenes together function as an immersion-breaking expedition down to the uncanny valley.
When Damon and his step-sister bafflingly fail to identify their aggressors at the police department, the plot really kicks in: everything is not as it seems, which is true, I suppose, for the Suburbicon community in general.
Their utopian lifestyle is a front, the animated brochure greeting the film’s opening credits a complete lie. Corruption seeps out from between each page, and the character’s plastered smiles can do nothing to hide that. And yet - and yet - as a microcosm of the American lifestyle, Suburbicon’s potential is squandered. The characters that populate the town may have an outdated ideology, but the film’s politics are equally so, its message of racism and blame hardly new. In addition to its blatant tone-deafness (aside from its black family and Damon’s son, none of these characters are good people, so Suburbicon’s stabs at comedy seem cruel rather than funny), the film reeks of sour milk: a cynical ‘American Dream’ condemnation that doesn’t so much as juggle its farce and fury as throw them in the air and hope that something happens.
If that sounds damning, that’s because it is, but that doesn’t mean Suburbicon is without its moments of inspiration. Oscar Isaac livens up the plodding narrative with a fantastically restive turn. His confrontation of Moore’s surviving character is the most Coen-esque, and, not coincidentally, most thrilling scene in the film.
Now, back to the black family: their scenes hardly affect Suburbicon’s central narrative, less a sub-plot and more a side-note. Yet their presence is felt everywhere, and the discrimination they face - infuriating retail prices, constant noise, and the bordering up of their fences - is palpable enough to leave impact. That their story doesn’t entirely lead anywhere may be for a reason - one which most critics are seemingly ignoring. Perhaps I’m giving Clooney too much credit, but this whole other narrative feels like a riff on the shaggy-dog trope of the Coens, instead making its shaggy-dogness the whole point. Why are we focusing on this white family when even
greater atrocities are happening across the street? It’s all to do with blame - ignorance of the real problem, and blame on those we have prejudices against. As the camera pans up in the closing shot, we see the empty street of Damon’s family, where murder, car crashes and bloodshed have occurred, and the crowded street of the black family - all the attention is on the wrong people, and Clooney’s Suburbicon mirrors that.