Here is the textbook definition of underserving a premise. In fact, due to the machinations of a confused screenplay, Suburbicon is a film that underserves two premises. One is a darkly comic mystery involving a home invasion, the accidental murder that directly results, and an insurance scheme that uncoils from all of this. The other is a tale of racial discrimination when a black family moves into the idyllic suburban community of the title, which is also a pretty obvious pun - a twist on the idealism of the setting. It's not much of a joke, and it's unclear whether co-writer/director George Clooney finds this to be the case.
On one hand, the filmmaker in Clooney certainly adopts the attitudes of his sibling co-screenwriters, Ethan and Joel Coen (credited separately, suggesting a very different first draft), in his approach to the main thrust of the plot, which takes care to introduce us to Suburbicon, a town that is almost unsettling in its utopia, but shoves us into a situation of mounting tension in media res. When strange men (played by Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) enter his home, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) wakes his son Nicky (Noah Jupe), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), a polio sufferer, and Rose's twin sister Maggie (also played by Moore) to hear the intruders' demands, which are mostly to sit still while they have their bit of fun.
The event spirals out of control early on, leading to an insurance scheme and some intimidation by the mob (Every idyllic suburb must have an organized crime ring, I guess?), to which the intruders belonged. Eventually, a claims investigator from the insurance company arrives, played by Oscar Isaac in a performance across two scenes that certainly hints at the tone for which Clooney is going. The deceptions and demented twists of the plot add up, aided by Damon's expert balancing of the line between absurd and grave but not by Alexandre Desplat's cutesy score, which keeps undermining the proceedings.
The other part of the screenplay, acting against the interests of this main narrative, constitutes what must be the contributions from Clooney and Grant Heslov, the fourth co-screenwriter credited on the project (and, again, the pair is credited separately from the brothers Coen). The Mayers, an African-American family of three, have moved into the homogeneously white Suburbicon, much to the open prejudice of their neighbors. The father and mother (played by Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) barely get a voice in the matter, but it seems that Nicky's friendship with their son (played by Tony Espinosa) is considered by many to be the catalyst for all this trouble.
Really, the introduction of racial tension only raises more questions at the heart of the movie: If we need to receive a glimpse into the not-so-hidden prejudices of a so-called utopia, why are we primarily following the trajectory of the plot involving murder and that other stuff? If the murder and that other stuff matters so much, why do we need the distraction of a glimpse into racial dysfunction? The racial dysfunction stuff ends up being relegated to a backdrop of the murder business, and neither element is done any favors. Suburbicon is a very confused movie indeed.
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