Suburbicon Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac. Directed by George Clooney. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.
Generally speaking, when a screenplay written by known talent goes unproduced for many years, there’s a good reason. That certainly seems to be the case with the Coen brothers, who’ve now had two of their mustier scripts filmed by other directors, to decidedly underwhelming effect. Almost nobody saw the 2012 remake of Gambit they penned (more than a decade earlier), despite stars Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz. Nobody missed anything, either. Suburbicon, helmed by regular Coen collaborator George Clooney, will almost certainly fare better at the box office, and it isn’t nearly as painful a misfire. Despite a substantial rewrite by Clooney and Grant Heslov, however, this awkward mix of black-comic noir and social satire feels like a project that spent a long time sitting in a drawer, not quite ready. You can almost see the rust.
Reportedly, Suburbicon, which is set in 1959, was among the earliest screenplays written by Joel and Ethan Coen, with the first draft completed not long after the premiere of their 1984 debut, Blood Simple. Its best ideas wound up resurfacing years later, much improved, in Fargo. Still, there are scattered elements of the Coen magic in its main story, about a meek-looking white-collar businessman, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), whose wheelchair-bound wife (Julianne Moore) is killed, apparently inadvertently, as the result of a home invasion. It’s immediately clear that something fishy is going on, however, especially when Gardner subsequently takes up with the dead woman’s identical twin sister, Margaret (Moore again), who’s perfectly ambulatory. Certainly, the dapper insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) who’s called in looks mighty suspicious, grilling Margaret with relentless gusto in the movie’s best sustained comic set piece.
By the Coens’ standards, this portrait of inept criminal behavior is at best mildly clever, in about the same league as their weakest film, 2004’s The Ladykillers. Clooney and Heslov seem to have recognized this, and attempt to provide some heft by grafting on a parallel story about Gardner’s next-door neighbors, the Meyers (Leith M. Burke, Karimah Westbrook and Tony Espinosa), the first black family to move into the titular prefab community. This material, loosely based on actual events, is in an altogether different register than the crime narrative, and makes its points about racism—specifically, the way that people close ranks when they feel threatened by perceived outsiders—with a sledgehammer. Suburbicon’s two halves (really more like three-quarters and one-quarter) never remotely gel, and neither one works especially well independent of the other. The Coens’ instinct about which scripts to abandon is clearly sound. One can’t blame them for taking the money when other filmmakers insist on trying to resuscitate what should have been left to rest in peace.