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Front Page - Friday, November 3, 2017

Oh, brother: Clooney’s ‘Suburbicon’ is a mess

At this stage in his career, George Clooney should be above juggling to entertain people. He’s an accomplished actor, a producer and director with a long list of credits and an active humanitarian and activist.

But juggle he does as the director and co-writer of “Suburbicon,” a crime caper starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. If I counted correctly, he tried to keep three balls in the air but wound up dropping them all.

The first ball was labeled “social satire.” Clooney, whose co-writers on the project included Joel and Ethan Coen (“The Big Lebowski,” “No Country for Old Men”) set the film in an all-white community in 1959 and spared no cliché. Every lawn is perfectly manicured, the mothers are all smiles as they look after their little angels and the men go to work in three piece suits and fedoras, briefcases in hand.

When they return home in their ‘57 Chevrolets, they’re greeted with a kiss, a martini and a warm meal. Just imagine the pages of an old Better Homes and Gardens magazine plastered across the American landscape.

This pristine veneer cracks when a black family moves into the neighborhood, and the disturbing reality of what lies beneath becomes visible. Before long, the community has whipped itself into an angry froth and is rioting outside the home of the newcomers. As the white residents destroy the black family’s property, they observe how these awful things never happened before the outsiders moved in. Blind to their own culpability and small-mindedness, they blame the wrong people for the disturbance.

Get it?

It would be hard not to. These scenes wear their social commentary on their sleeve and lack even a whiff of wit or irony. David Lynch explored the notion of the suburban lie in a more interesting manner in “Blue Velvet.” Here, Clooney takes the rioting to an almost comedic level of absurdity, much like Darren Aronofsky did in “mother!”

Likewise, the second ball Clooney tried to juggle – the one labeled “racial commentary” – has been explored more effectively in other films. I prefer the racial commentary in “Marshall” to the observations made in “Suburbicon.” Compare the scene in which an elderly black man looks on with confusion as Thurgood Marshall sips from a whites-only drinking fountain to the scene of the rioters singing “Sweet By and By” as they behold the ruins of the black family’s property.

The two films are decades apart in terms of the quality of their commentary. “Marshall” relies on context and uses the water fountain scene to hint at the great things the future chief justice of the Supreme Court would accomplish. Clooney and the Coen brothers regress to sarcasm to poke fun at a cliché.

The odd thing about the first two balls is how they provide a mere backdrop to the central storyline – the unraveling of a husband and father’s life after a home invasion rattles his picture-perfect existence.

This is the third ball Clooney juggles – the one labeled “murder mystery.” Only there’s not much mystery to it nor are there any surprises in terms of how it plays out.

Actually, allow me to correct myself. The predictability and thin characterizations are a surprise when you consider the excellent work the Coen brothers have done in this genre. From “Blood Simple” to “Fargo,” they rewrote the rulebook for crime capers. Here, they seem to play by the old rules.

In brief, Matt Damon stars as Gardner Lodge, a father who calmly wakes his son, Nicky, one night with the words, “There are men in the house. They’re going to take what they want and then leave.” This sets in motion a chain of events not unlike those described in the stranger-than-fiction murder documentaries on the ID Channel.

Having watched a good number of those shows, I quickly surmised where “Suburbicon” was headed. That left me to spend my time wondering why Clooney and the Coen brothers shoehorned the subplot about the black family moving into the neighborhood into the movie. The two narratives seemed to come from different films.

The reason becomes apparent as a man is beating another man to death with a golf club in the middle of the street not far from the riots. “Look at this horrible thing that’s happening under everyone’s noses, but their racism has made them blind to the real evil that’s in the midst!” Clooney all but screams.

If “Suburbicon” has any redeeming value, it’s Moore’s performance as the two women in Gardner’s life: his wife and sister-in-law. She plays the two roles well, giving each twin a distinct personality and then doing excellent work as one of them crumbles emotionally in response to mess that develops around her.

In the end, though, the word “mess” offers a perfect description of “Suburbicon.” Clooney and the Coen brothers tried to cram too many ideas into the movie – none of which were good to begin with.

Considering the level of talent involved in its creation, the word “disappointment” would be another accurate descriptor for “Suburbicon.” And who goes to the movies to be disappointed?

1.5 stars out of 4