September 17, 2018
Suburbicon (2017)
Grade: 70/100

Director: George Clooney
Stars: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe

What it's about. An unpleasant historical something (comedy? drama?) set in a "Leave It to Beaver"-styled suburb. Matt Damon appears to be a humorless owner of a medium-sized business. Julianne Moore appears to be his easy-going sister-in-law. But they are not what they seem.

Moore also plays Damon's wheelchair-bound wife. The couple has a wide-eyed son of about 12, Noah Jupe. They have new next-door neighbors: the Mayers, a black family subjected to an increasingly intense campaign of racial hostility by the community. Nevertheless, Jupe becomes good friends with the Mayers' son Andy (Tony Espinosa).

Damon hires a pair of violent killers (Alex Hassell and Ira Sloan) to murder his wife to collect on an insurance policy. This leads to a visit from flamboyant insurance inspector Oscar Isaac. Moore's suspicious brother Gary Basaraba shows up as a potential rescuer. Events take a surreal turn, but at least Crime Does Not Pay.

How others will see it. Formidable talent lined up behind the production of Suburbicon. An unfilmed Coen Brothers script from 1986 was combined with an unrelated script that dramatized the 1957 integration of the black Myers family in the previously lily-white suburb of Levittown, PA.

The script doctors for this effort were Grant Heslov and George Clooney, who shared two Best Screenplay Oscar nominations (Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March). Clooney was also the director of Suburbicon and an Oscar winner (with Heslov) as a producer of Best Picture Oscar winner Argo.

The critical success of the Coen Brothers is well known and requires no elaboration. Throw in Matt Damon and Julianne Moore, and you have a recipe for success.

But it didn't happen. Suburbicon opened in over 2,000 theaters as a colossal dud. Critical reviews were mostly negative (less than 30% at Rotten Tomatoes) and moviegoers were severely disappointed (a D- at CinemaScore).

Today at, the movie has a reasonable 26K user votes but the user rating is a low 5.6 out of 10. Interestingly, non-U.S. viewers outnumber American viewers by more than 3 to 1 ratio, and also rate it higher (5.7 versus 5.1, out of 10) than U.S. voters.

It appears that many viewers, especially white Americans, dislike this movie. After all, it depicts them as willing to murder their wives, sisters, or children to collect an insurance windfall and flee to Aruba. Other adult characters include two murderers, a blackmailer, and countless suburban bigots.

In contrast, the black family is noble and courageous. It was just too much to accept, even for fans of the Coen Brothers and prior efforts by Clooney as a writer and producer.

How I felt about it. Suburbicon was promoted as a dark comedy, or perhaps a crime drama. It doesn't work as either, or as a horror movie. I choose to see it as a satire of the American dream.

Suburbicon is purportedly an ideal place for nuclear families, consisting of hard-working husbands, chipper housewives, and well-behaved pre-teenaged children. But peel away this respectable veneer, and you have ruthless schemers willing to murder as many people it takes to get what they want, even if the victims are close family members.

This is the film's ugly message, and it reminds me of Scarlet Street (1945), the notorious film noir that entered public domain because its own studio disavowed it. The difference is that, more than 70 years later, Scarlet Street has a lofty imdb user rating 7.9 out of 10 among U.S. voters, instead of 5.1 out of 10. Then again, nobody in Scarlett Street murders their sister or attempts to murder their nephew.