The names Joel and Ethan Coen pop up on a lot of screenplays these days (“Bridge of Spies,” “Unbroken”), now that they’re getting credit for the kind of script-polishing they used to do anonymously. But “Suburbicon” marks the first time a script that could have been a full-blown Coen brothers film has been brought to the screen by someone else. The movie, directed by George Clooney, who along with his partner Grant Heslov re-wrote an old unproduced Coen brothers script (all four are now credited), stars Matt Damon as a dour, weaselly, amateur family-man criminal in the U.S. suburbs of 1959, and it’s clearly a close cousin to “Fargo.”
There are moments when you can taste the heightened comic spin that the Coens, as filmmakers, would have brought to the material. They would surely have made a bigger fetish of the Atomic Age trappings and decor (the way they did with the mid-’60s Midwestern Jewish visual detail of “A Serious Man”), and each time the blustery vulgarian Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) showed up on screen, I couldn’t help but imagine him played by an actor like Michael Lerner or the late Jon Polito.
Yet Clooney, in taking over what might once have been a signature Coen project, was right to make the material his own; he tailors it to his own less cheeky, more personal temperament. The film opens with a satirical kitsch documentary prologue that introduces Suburbicon, a community that has drawn people from different regions of the country (all of whom look like they stepped out of the same white-bread Norman Rockwell painting), celebrating it as a cookie-cutter American paradise. But then the movie settles down and becomes a straight-up, rather grubby film noir — and taken on those terms, as a period-piece “Fargo” with more sleaze and less irony, it’s a lightly sneaky and entertaining movie.
From the moment he began directing, George Clooney has been a stylish, visually rhythmic, avidly engrossing yarn-spinner (the one exception, speaking of irony, is his biggest hit to date, the dud World War II art thriller “The Monuments Men”), and so it is with “Suburbicon.” It’s a movie that reels the audience in and keeps it hooked: with smart little kicks of surprise, with a sidelong but still highly charged social theme (the perilous cataclysm of integration), and, of course, with the squalid bad behavior of ordinary people who think that they can wriggle out of their unhappiness through furtive, cut-rate schemes. “Suburbicon” is probably too much of a compact, no-frills genre exercise to have much traction at awards time, but it’s enough of a plucky, well-made lark to find an audience.
The movie gets rolling with a crime that plays very oddly, and before long we learn why: Gardner Lodge (Damon), a local financial VP in button-down white shirts and tortoise-shell glasses, wakes up his son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), and brings him downstairs, saying, “There are men in the house.” The men turn out to be a couple of menacing sadistic robbers (Glenn Flesher and Alex Hassell). Instead of looking for cash, they tie up the whole family and berate them, chloroforming everyone into unconsciousness. (We keep thinking: Why doesn’t Gardner look more scared?)
It’s a rather eccentric family, because it includes Gardner’s wife, Rose, a saintly wholesome fuddy-duddy blonde in a wheelchair (she was the victim of a car accident), and Rose’s far saucier brunette identical twin sister, Margaret — both of whom are played by Julianne Moore. The incident turns into a tragedy when Rose, due to her frail nature, fails to wake up from the chloroform; instead, she lies in a coma in a hospital bed, then dies. That’s the film’s set-up — but, of course, the whole lurid event we have just witnessed is a set-up. Gardner goes back to work, stolid and shaken and crying a few crocodile tears, but when he’s called in to identify the two crooks in a police line-up, and deliberately fails to do so, we know that something is up.
In “Fargo,” which is still the Coen brothers’ greatest film, the William H. Macy character was such a bumbling, underhanded jerk of quiet desperation that we rooted for him to succeed and, at the same time, were only too happy to see the law close in on him, especially once the film invited our identification to shift over to the now-classic character of Frances McDormand’s quippy detective Marge Gunderson. In “Suburbicon,” we identify with Damon’s Gardner up to a point, but the actor has created another fascinatingly dark scuzzball scoundrel to add to his gallery of quiet sociopaths.
Gardner might be described as an untalented Mr. Ripley. He’s a morose and smoldering nerd bulldog who appears, for a while, to have thought everything out, but not really. He’s a drone who fits right into the plastic homogenized landscape of Suburbicon, but he still wants out. There’s a hidden kinkiness to the proceedings, expressed in a brief scene of late-’50s S&M (with a Ping-Pong paddle used in place of the whip that would probably be there 10 years later), that’s funny and startling but also speaks to everything that the 1950s were repressing.
In “Suburbicon,” there’s no Marge Gunderson to take over the film, but there is a kind of detective: Oscar Isaac, geekishly dapper in a tan suit and pencil mustache, as an insurance-company claims investigator who knows all the angles because his mind is working a mile a minute. In an enjoyably charged scene, he sits down in the kitchen with Moore’s Margaret — willowy, slightly spaced, now blonde (can you say dime-store “Vertigo”?), not too good a liar — and blitzes her with so much information that he susses out what’s going on in five minutes. Isaac makes his very flippancy electrifying; he knows he’s just dealing with two more losers, but he’s alive with his mission.
As Gardner’s scheme begins to come apart, the movie turns bloody, but it never loses its petty-scam logic or its driving, if rather familiar, pulp-noir urgency. Clooney keeps it all nice and tight. He also — eventually — makes the film’s racial theme pay off, though for a good while what happens to the Meyers (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke), the first Negro family to move to Suburbicon, almost seems to be taking place in a different film.
The couple have purchased the house next door to Gardner’s, and in their adjoining fenced-in backyards their son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), strikes up a tentative acquaintance with Gardner’s son Nicky. But to put it as simply as the movie does, the Meyers are tormented and terrorized: by a smug mailman, by the manager of a supermarket who basically tells Mrs. Meyers she can’t shop there, and by a vast group of “concerned citizens” who rise up against them in full, ugly, white-supremacist fervor.
Clooney, who added much of this to the script, includes period newsreel footage on television of suburban whites “rationalizing” the separateness of their neighborhoods, and what he captures, with stark (and, at moments, rather overstated) force, is that even the suburbs could act as their own version of the KKK. You might ask: What does all this have to do with the tawdry crime of passion “Suburbicon” is about? But by the end, we see just how much it has to do with it. The thing that drives Gardner to crime — the airlessness of his existence — is the very premise of white homogenized suburban life. That’s why he does all he can to escape it. And why it had to change.