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Half a movie we know too well and half that might have benefited from more attention, Suburbicon is a smart-alecky late-'50s-set crime comedy (when it’s not being a racially charged thriller). The part that's overly familiar comes from the rejects pile of Joel and Ethan Coen, who first hammered out a draft after the success of their 1984 debut, Blood Simple. Their tale concerns an uptight family patriarch (horn-rimmed Matt Damon) and his impulsive plan to run off with his sister-in-law (Julianne Moore) and a wad of insurance money after staging a home invasion. Retroactively, you’ll be glad the Coens shelved these ideas, developing them a decade later into the more nuanced Fargo; here, the scenario plays like a dull Raymond Chandler homage, goosed with seesawing Hitchcockian strings and murderous staredowns.
Meanwhile – and far more interestingly – a black family, the Meyers, has moved into the house next door, to the shock of the mailman and pretty much everyone else in the film’s square 1959. The lily-white community goes ape, assembling in the street with protest signs and torches and eventually getting violent. (This section is partly inspired by a real-life conflict that ruined a quiet block in Pennsylvania.) But why cast the dignified Karimah Westbrook as Mrs. Meyers if you’re not going to give her a defiant speech or two? Whenever we cut away from this pressure cooker of a situation, you can hear some distant studio executive sighing in relief: Finally, let’s get back to Matt Damon pedaling furiously on a kid’s bicycle.
Director and cowriter George Clooney has too much experience in both of Suburbicon’s tonally disparate worlds to come up empty-handed. He knows how to milk the most out of a Coens stinger line: 'Ever hear of Aruba, Nicky?' (delivered by Damon to a scared little boy) is a jewel you might be snark-quoting at a later date. And when Inside Llewyn Davis’s Oscar Isaac shows up as an obnoxious, fast-talking insurance salesman who smells fish, the movie becomes his, and stays his, long after he’s gone. Elsewhere, the politically sincere Clooney behind 2005’s impassioned Good Night, and Good Luck teases out his angry mob’s hypocrisy in shots that are depressingly timely. It would have been better if only one of these Clooneys showed up for work. Then again, Suburbicon is so inoffensive in its competently mounted quirk that you won’t mourn the film that might have been.
By Joshua Rothkopf