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Movie review: Suburban angst gets uneven treatment in 'Suburbicon'

By Matthew LucasCorrespondent

George Clooney and Grant Heslov adapted an un-filmed script by Joel and Ethan Coen, stripped it of its subtlety and satirical bite, and produced “Suburbicon,” a beautifully designed, but otherwise inert, parable about moral rot at the heart of white, suburban America. It’s not a new concept; from David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” to Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road,” the sterile suburban landscape has provided filmmakers with a rich palate with which to explore the American soul. Unfortunately, it’s clear that there was a good reason why the Coens never filmed this screenplay themselves: it’s just not that good.

“Suburbicon” feels like imitation Coen, and indeed, Clooney is trying to mimic the Coens’ uniquely deadpan style of pitch-black comedy. Set in the fictional town of Suburbicon in the 1950s, the film stars Matt Damon as a suburban father named Gardner Lodge, whose idyllic existence is shaken up by the arrival of an African American family in their quiet little town. The neighbors are outraged, and set out to run the new family out of town in order to stop racial integration.

Lodge, however, has bigger fish to fry. In the midst of the neighborhood chaos, his home is invaded and his wife (Julianne Moore) is killed, leaving him alone with his son (Noah Jupe) and sister-in-law (also Moore). But all is not as it seems; as an insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) begins snooping around, the truth about the murder comes out, and all their lives will be turned upside down.

The main problem with “Suburbicon” is that it tries to tell two stories at once; the story of the Lodge family, and the story of their African American neighbors. The ultimate point is to illustrate how white people often blame minorities for their problems, when those problems are usually self-created. While the point is a bit on-the-nose, the two stories just never really mesh.

There are highlights of Coen-esque dark humor that manage to shine through. The cast is uniformly fantastic, it’s beautifully designed, and Alexandre Desplat’s lilting score is a delight. But the film as a whole is much less than the sum of its parts.

The screenplay feels like an incomplete first draft of a much better Coen Brothers movie. Even lesser Coen joints like “The Ladykillers,” “Intolerable Cruelty,” and “Burn After Reading” (the three Coen films “Suburbicon” most closely emulates) were more cohesive and entertaining than this. It makes its point quickly, and then never seems to figure out where it wants to go with it.

Clooney is a fine actor and a competent filmmaker, but “Suburbicon” finds him in a mode of comedy with which he just doesn’t seem comfortable. It’s an uneven, often unpleasant satire that comes across as a pale imitation of the Coens’ distinctive style. Matthew Lucas, a former Davidson County resident, studied theater and film studies at Appalachian State University.

He now resides in Blowing Rock and has a blog where he posts movie news, reviews and commentary at www.fromthefrontrow.net.

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