I've followed George Clooney's career as director with guarded interest because his choice of material is always intriguing. He has a penchant for period dramas, often based on or inspired by real-life events, with all but taking place before the 21st century. But aside from Good Luck, and Good Night, I've always come away from his movies disappointed. Suburbicon is no different.

Once again, the choice of material sounds great, on paper. Based on an old script by the Coen brothers, with updates by Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, the story takes place in the mid-1950's, in the picture-perfect and corporately-monikered suburb of Suburbicon, in any-state America. It's home to families like the Lodges, with patriarch Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her visiting twin sister Margaret (Moore, again), and son Nicky (an amazing young Noah Jupe).

The neighborhood starts to come to pieces when the Mayerses, a black family, moves in behind the Lodges. Protestations begin at the local town hall meeting, and devolve into loud rioting in front of the Mayerses' home. Despite this, young Nicky befriends the similarly-aged Andy Mayers, after some urging from aunt Margaret.

One night, Nicky is awakened by his father, who tells him there are bad men in the house who want something, and they'll leave after they get it. With the terrorized family gathered around the kitchen table, the men — who seem to be on a first name basis with Gardner — chloroform them all, ultimately resulting in Rose's death.

But young Nicky begins to suspect things aren't exactly on the up-and-up when aunt Margaret moves in permanently, and neither she nor his father seem too eager to actually find the men who murdered Rose.

The Coen brothers have used the crime-gone-awry plot several times, and there's plenty in the screenplay that clearly found its way into better Coen brothers films. Throughout Suburbicon, Clooney goes against the instincts of the script, and makes the choice to play the majority of the movie straight (although the trailer falsely sells it as an arch Coen-esque comedy) so that when moments of comedy do come through, it feels completely wrong and tone-deaf.

One reason the film may have steered away from the comedy is the racial subplot. We can't be sure the original script didn't have the racial commentary this version does, but that theme feels so painfully forced into the story that logic dictates it probably is what was added by Clooney and Heslov. Aside from Andy, no one in the Mayers family has identifiable first names, nor are they given much to say. They are simply symbols: the black family that chooses to counter racist violence with quiet dignity, there just to drive home heavy-handed symbolism about how the local bigots are too busy screaming at the innocent black family that just moved in to notice there are actual monsters living in the white house behind them.

This is the first movie Clooney's directed where he didn't cast himself in a role, and watching it I wondered if his presence would have helped. Matt Damon's performance doesn't have any steady footing. At some points he comes off as a scheming monster, and at others as a nebbishy loser in over his head. How he plays the two never meshes.

I do applaud the casting of Julianne Moore as the good and evil twins, both because it's a wry callback to her start on soaps where she did something similar, and also because she's almost ten years older than Damon. When was the last time you saw that kind of casting in a major motion pictures?

Oscar Isaac also steals the movie in his short role as a weaselly insurance adjuster who doesn't for one minute believe Rose's death wasn't premeditated. It's in his scenes that you can see the road the movie could have taken if the clumsy social commentary had been left out and the comedy simmering underneath had been played up.

But even when Clooney's movies fail, they're always beautiful to look at. I'm a sucker for mid-century modern design, and Suburbicon's art direction and costumes were spot-on and covetable. And the soundtrack, which hearkens back to classic Hollywood and the work of Bernard Herrmann, is also terrific. Combined it almost makes sitting through this terrible misfire worth it.


The Ides of March