There’s a certain bizarro-world fascination to seeing one filmmaker dust off another’s ancient, un-filmed project. Think Steven Spielberg trying his hand at a Stanley Kubrick movie, or Sylvain Chomet bringing to life an old Jacques Tati script through the wonders of animation. In theory, George Clooney, that full-time handsome guy and part-time filmmaker, would seem an ideal choice to shepherd a lost Coen brothers caper to the big screen. After all, Clooney has acted for Joel and Ethan numerous times—they coax a rare screwball energy from his highness—and he’s spent a lot of his time behind the camera paying tribute to Old Hollywood, just with a little more straight-faced sincerity than the creators of Hail, Caesar! But Suburbicon (Grade: C), which Clooney directed from a long-shelved Coen screenplay, is an awkward mishmash—two incompatible movies uncomfortably wedged together. It’s as if Clooney has made like Robert Zemeckis and somehow digitally spliced an earnest social-issues drama into a zany mishap noir.
Honestly, the dominant movie here isn’t so hot in the first place; one understands why the Coens, who wrote it right after Blood Simple, sat on the script for three and a half decades. In a picturesque and seemingly idyllic 1950s suburban community called, yes, Suburbicon, a young boy (Noah Jupe) slowly discovers that his father (Matt Damon, miscast but still entertaining) may have had a role in the In Cold Blood-style breaking-and-entering that claimed the life of his mother (Julianne Moore). Dad, you see, has taken up with Mom’s twin sister (Moore again), and he seems none to eager to actually identify the guilty parties when the police thrust the two goons into a lineup.
This all plays, in other words, like a primitive, retroactive dry-run to the Jerry Lundegaard strand of Fargo. Or it would, anyway, if Clooney had any real feel for the Coens’ dark-comic alchemy. But as one might guess from his body of directorial work, including the Oscar-nominated Good Night, And Good Luck and the turgid WWII drama The Monuments Men, he’s far too much a square classicist to nail the precise throwback vibe necessary. Clooney creates a vague vintage aura—Alexandre Desplat’s lush retro score and Robert Elswit’s typically slick cinematography do the heavy lifting there—but he seems lost as to how to replicate the siblings’ sardonic tweaking of old genre tropes. The tone swings wildly scene to scene.
And that’s just the A-plot. Where Suburbicon really stumbles is in the square peg it attempts to clumsily cram into the movie’s round hole: a subplot about a black family that moves in across the street from the main characters, causing an uproar in this otherwise entirely white community. Perhaps fearful that any Coen-style archness would be inappropriate for material involving American racism, Clooney incongruently plays these scenes completely straight, which makes it feel like he’s channel-surfed to any entirely different film every time they arrive. At the same time, it’d be hard to call the family actual “characters,” as they exhibit no traits beyond noble endurance in the face of oppression.
One might charitably argue that Clooney is making a damning point about small-town values, and the irony of a murderous, adulterous schemer daring to express concern about what a black family moving in might do to the neighborhood. But was this the right project through which to tackle that idea? The Suburbicon of Suburbicon is one of those hyper-stylized movie-informed visions of middle-American community, just a hair left of Pleasantville on the unreality spectrum. It does not feel, in other words, like a real place. By dropping a sincere story about racial intimidation into the middle of this cheekily imagined fantasy ’burb, Clooney risks making it look like a problem from the distant past—just an unpleasant thing that used to happen back when America was all white-picket fences and rabbit-ear TVs, and movies looked (kind of, sort of) like this one.
There’s no way to know for sure which scenes belong to the Coens and which ones were devised by Clooney and his regular writing partner, Grant Heslov. But there was early talk that Clooney “added a layer to it,” and the subplot sure as hell feels like something he unwisely airlifted in; not since From Dusk Till Dawn, perhaps, has it been easier to pinpoint the alternating, individual sensibilities of two authorial voices. Which is to say: Suburbicon is a mediocre Coens caper with a bleeding-heart Clooney film crammed down its gullet. For a few minutes, though, it does achieve a devilishly funny edge, and all of them belong to Llewyn Davis himself, Oscar Isaac, who pops in to play, with great relish, a suspicious insurance-fraud investigator. For just a moment, at least, Suburbicon looks like the lost Coen classic it wants to be.