Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/29/17 00:53:34

"White people problems."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

They didn't mention race much in the trailer for "Suburbicon", or give much attention to the kid who resides closest to the center of the movie, and while keeping something in reserve isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's also kind of something that happens with the movie itself, in that director George Clooney never really gets into the good, meaty stuff.

The film opens with a sly comment on integration that quickly gets pointed, as an animated sales pitch for the titular town touts its diversity with lily-white families from all across the country, only to freak out when the African-American Mayers clan buys a house there, leading to freakouts and alarmed town meetings. Their backyard abuts that of the Lodge family - father Gardner (Matt Damon), mother Rose (Julianne Moore), and son Nicky (Noah Jupe) - and Rose's sister Margaret (Moore) prods Noah to go play with his new neighbor Andy (Tony Espinosa). A few nights later, two men break into the Lodge house, knocking the entire family out with chloroform - something the already-disabled Rose cannot handle. It's a weird crime, and just gets weirder the closer anyone looks.

Not that there's a lot there; the mystery storyline is both exactly what it looks like from the start and missing a few details that might make it memorable. There's a number of things about the set-up that seem like they'd be really nifty if fleshed out - Margaret is a mass of potential contradictions while Gardner is presented as so generic that it's tough to get a handle on what he wants, with the filmmakers seeming to have little interest in what's in his head once they've done the jokes about everyone offering him the same platitudes. It's a story that only really comes to life when it gets weird or derailed by truly random events, although the basic material is strong enough to work regardless.

The opportunities to use the thriller elements as a way to sneak in satire are where the film should really click, but it winds up kind of limp and occasionally tone-deaf. The until-now all-white community growing more and more vitriolic toward their new neighbors while murder and other crimes go on across the backyard is a fine idea that winds up feeling as much a product of privilege as an indictment of racism, making the African-American characters little more than plot devices - the father may not have any actual lines - reducing the increasingly horrific things they must go through a mere distraction from what happens with the white people. The idea that the suburbs are a sad facade that people are trying to escape even though they haven't yet had time to rot isn't even played with enough to seem either clever or irritating. And if the story can't work as a straight thriller or something satirical, then what's it for?

It puts Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in a bit of a no-man's-land, with Damon playing a relatively narrow range of variations on "tightly wound" and Moore doing yeoman's work to get all of Margaret's contradictory characteristics working together, and quickly makes Rose interesting enough to be noteworthy. It's Noah Jupe who anchors the story as young Nicky Lodge, genuinely confused and unprepared for what he's encountering. On the other hand, Oscar Isaac is a special delight when he pops up in the second half as an insurance investigator who smells something funny, making up some for how Matt Damon and Julianne Moore aren't used to close to their potential.

It looks nice, though, meticulously put together with impeccable art direction and frequent Coen-y bits of black humor. Which is where the film ultimately lands: Not outright bad, but never what it should be, especially considering that everyone involved seems capable of much better.

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