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Julianne Moore and Matt Damon are the leads in Suburbicon. Instead of a quirky black comedy set in the late-1950s about criminal misdeeds in a quiet community, the film weaves in an unnecessary subplot about racial politics.

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Director Clooney at the red carpet for his film Suburbicon at the Toronto International Film Festival, in Toronto, Canada, on Sept 9.

Suffering from an identity crisis

George Clooney's Suburbicon offers a mediocre tale, muddied by two plotlines that lack the proper glue to bind them together.
Nov 10, 2017 5:50 AM

BY THE time Suburbicon lumbers towards its final reveal, the nagging feeling that George Clooney's sixth directorial effort might be a bit of a disappointment has become an uncomfortable reality. Clooney is a star who has enjoyed his fair share of box-office success in front of the camera but as a filmmaker with a liking for socially conscious "message" movies, he hasn't quite delivered.

Expectations that Suburbicon - based on an original script that Joel and Ethan Coen wrote 30 years ago - might have the makings of another Fargo (1996) are dashed early on. Instead of a quirky black comedy set in the late-1950s about criminal misdeeds in a quiet community, the film weaves in an unnecessary subplot about racial politics, giving the impression that it suffers from an identity crisis. The result is a mediocre tale, muddied by two plotlines that lack the proper glue to bind them together.

All is not well in sunny Suburbicon, a white middle class neighbourhood in Pennsylvania whose residents are jolted out of their reverie by the arrival of the Mayer family, who would be a perfect fit if not for the fact that they are African-American (some things never change). In an era of racial segregation, it isn't long before tensions erupt and the Mayers are made to feel most unwelcome.

Their next-door neighbour is more decent than most, however. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is a mild-mannered straight arrow with a respectable job, horn-rimmed spectacles and a loving wife Rose (Julianne Moore) who happens to be wheelchair-bound (we learn how she got there later on).

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Other members of the household include their pre-teen son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and Rose's twin sister Margaret (also Ms Moore).

A break-in at the Lodge residence is the catalyst for events to accelerate to a point where things go badly, almost comically wrong - a Coen trademark - and it's left to the perpetrators to suffer the consequences. There's a death in the family, followed by some curious goings-on that don't seem to add up, especially to Nicky. "I don't want to be here anymore," he says, and who can blame him?

Gardner is the film's protagonist and an air of tragedy engulfs him but from time to time the focus shifts to the Mayers and the abuse heaped on them by the community. Apart from some low-level interaction between Nicky and Andy (Tony Espinosa), his counterpart in the Mayer household, the link between the two storylines is tenuous at best.

The screenplay is credited to the Coens as well as Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov, and it's clear that the director's personal views on race and discrimination have simply been tacked on.

The pace picks up when an insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) arrives on the scene, but the bodies keep piling up and the situation spirals out of control. Along the way Suburbicon crosses the line between possibility and farce and there's not much anybody can do to salvage things.

"It stinks," says a character near the end. He wasn't referring to the film and that's possibly too harsh a verdict anyway - but it is in the same vicinity.

Rating: C