Race satire Suburbicon misses the mark

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      Starring Matt Damon. Rated PG

      For more than 300 years, the English and postcolonial Americans stole humans from Africa, put them in chains, and worked them to death on southern plantations. There was a war about it, but the ex-slaves and their “free” descendants were soon forced into penurious servitude and spent another century facing increasingly violent denial of their right to vote, work, and live where they wanted.

      After helping to fight racism in the Second World War, African-Americans started pushing out of urban ghettos for a chance to share the new suburban dream—only to be met by even more heated resistance, including cross-burnings and lynch mobs, from otherwise smiley-faced white Americans. According to Suburbicon director George Clooney, working from a script written with Ethan and Joel Coen, all this Holocaust-level history—in this case, something based on a real 1957 incident in ticky-tacky Levittown, Pennsylvania—exists only as an amusingly satirical backdrop to the problems of greedy people who don’t even notice what is literally happening in their own backyard.

      The fictional ’50s folks in question here are Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his invalid wife, Rose, and her visiting twin sister, Margaret (both played by Julianne Moore). Early on, their ranch-style tract home is invaded, In Cold Blood–style, by thugs who say they’re looking for loot. In the scuffle, Rose is snuffed, then Margaret moves in and little Nicky Lodge (cast standout Noah Jupe, from the U.K.) starts to wonder if dear old Dad is really what he seems.

      At the same time, a black family called the Meyerses has moved into the house directly behind the Lodges, but only their son Andy (Tony Espinosa, who played the young Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation) is given a real personality, since he’s the same age as the bewildered but ball-playing Nicky. The other neighbours quickly build a whisper campaign against the newcomers into a full-scale riot, eventually bringing the police and the National Guard into the picture.

      For some reason, though, none of this is heard or even glimpsed from the Lodges’ lodgings, and the various crooks, relatives, and officials—with Oscar Isaac providing a needed shot of energy as a sharklike insurance investigator—who visit never seem to notice a frenzied state of emergency 100 yards away. Perhaps this nonsensical topography is meant to say something about the solipsism of America’s white middle class—an overused trope handled with similar confusion in Pleasantville and real edge in Blue Velvet. But mostly it seems like a social observation tacked on by Clooney in a failed attempt at the kind of stylistic eclecticism the Coen brothers pull off, with some difficulty, in their own smarter efforts.

      This might not matter so much if viewers were given some rooting interest in the alleged protagonists (aside from the boy) or some fresh twists to the noir conventions in the foreground. But the whole thing feels like an artifact from another era before evil clowns took over the circus and rendered satire obsolete. If the movie had centred on the Meyerses’ Night of the Living Klan ordeal and the “normals” next door just happened to be crazy grifters—well, that could be something.