Thursday, October 26, 2017

Satire sinks in Clooney's 'Suburbicon'

Finding the right tone for dark comedy might be one of the most difficult things for a director to achieve. Case in point, Suburbicon, a mangled George Clooney-directed comedy about the nightmares that bubble beneath the surface of America's suburban dream.

Set during the 1950s in the fictional community of Suburbicon, Clooney's movie struggles (but ultimately fails) to link a story about family hypocrisy and horror to the racism that pervades a carefully designed community that has been marketed as a mid-century utopia.

The story focuses on a family in which Matt Damon plays Gardner Lodge, a father who contrives with his sister-in-law (Julianne Moore) to murder his wife (also Moore), a woman confined to a wheelchair after an automobile accident.

To carry out his foul plan, Lodge hires a couple of thugs (Glenn Flesher and Alex Hassell) to invade his home. Gardner's six-year-old son Nicky (Noah Jupe) functions as the movie's innocent witness to the horrible deeds that unfold around him, and, at times, your heart aches for this tormented young actor. What's he doing in movie that treats his character so cruelly?

Joel and Ethan Coen are listed among the film's writers, and traces of the Coens' work reveal themselves as the story unfolds. Clooney and Grant Heslov also take writing credits, but the overall result is a hodgepodge that Clooney can't unify. Worse yet, Clooney plays some of the movie straight. The result: scenes that feel as if they were lifted from a low-grade thriller.

The harassment of Suburbicon's African-American family (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, and Tony Espinosa) supposedly was inspired by a real-life, 1957 case in which William and Daisy Myers were subjected to terrible race-based abuse in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Suburbicon's easy-target approach to racism consists mostly of showing sneering expressions of hatred by the supposedly upright residents of Suburbicon.

Moreover, a baseball-related friendship between Nicky and the African-American kid next door (Espinosa) sees like a transparent effort to add symbolic and emotional resonance.

The only actor who finds precisely the right tone for Suburbicon is Oscar Isaac, who shows up midway through as an insurance claims investigator with his own sleazy agenda.

The cast does its best to keep the story tracking, but scenes that are intended to be funny don't produce the expected laughs and the satirical point (Lodge is the real menace, not the town's only African-American family) doesn't resonate the way it should.

Maybe Clooney wanted to expand a small story about the underbelly of suburban life by offering a sidebar about the racism that underlies America's shining facade. Whatever he was thinking, he mostly missed the mark.

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