Review: Will Gompertz on George Clooney's Suburbicon ★★☆☆☆

Matt Damon’s latest film opens with an in-movie advert selling the virtues of living the American dream in a post-war new town. It promises a nice house, a nice neighbourhood, and a nice life. “The only thing missing in Suburbicon,” it declares, “is you!”

It makes for a good start. And so it should.

George Clooney, the film’s director, knows a thing or two about advertising. The set-up, the 1950s aesthetic, and tongue-in-cheek irony are all convincing.

But, like lots of adverts, it’s not telling the whole truth. There is quite a lot missing from Suburbicon.

For starters, it lacks a coherent narrative. This is a film with an awkward, split personality.

It has two largely unrelated stories taking place concurrently in neighbouring properties, yet they barely intersect, and succeed only in undermining each other.

Story one is a Coen Brothers-scripted goofball comedy-thriller structured around their go-to dramatic devices: A staged robbery, a hapless cast of characters, and plenty of cartoonish violence.

Matt Damon stars as a seemingly upright fellow, with a young son and a disabled wife, played by Julianne Moore, who also plays her twin sister. It’s offbeat and amusing. Bad decisions are made, things unravel. All very Coen Bros.

Next door, the tone is totally different.

Here, the narrative is based on a 1957 documentary called Crisis in Levittown, which tells the very unfunny, all too true story of the African-American upper middle-class Myers family who move into the all-white Levittown (just like Suburbicon), where they are subjected to horrific and terrifying racial abuse.

The insertion of this narrative into the Coen Bros 1999 script was because Clooney wanted to make a film “that feels angry”.

He hasn’t. He’s made a film that feels confused. It doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be, a surreal satire or a hard-hitting drama. The upshot is, both targets are missed.

Clooney has some form in this regard when it comes to directing. His previous outing as a helmsman was the 2014 movie Monuments Men, which was also fatally flawed by trying to be both a rat-pack type caper and a serious examination of the issue of Nazi-looted art.

It’s a shame, because the movie is almost there. The acting is good, the directing assured, and both stories have potential and relevance.

But like any Bake Off contestant will tell you, it doesn’t matter how good the ingredients are, it’s what you do with them that matters.

There is a fine line between a melt-in-the-mouth, light-as-a-feather Victoria Sponge and sticky mess with a soggy bottom.

Suburbicon falls into the latter category.

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