If there were a criminal charge for Grand Theft Feature Film, Oscar Isaac would be facing a long, long sentence. He pops up for a couple of scenes as an insurance investigator halfway through “Suburbicon,” evolves on the spot from mild patience to testy suspicion followed by snide cynicism, then departs with the movie stolen and stuffed into his back pocket.
In a film running a brief 104 minutes, he supplies 90 percent of the entertainment in 5 percent of the time. As for the rest of the project, we’ll get to that. Let’s take a moment first to count our blessings.
Retrofitted on the scaffolding of an old script by Joel and Ethan Coen, “Suburbicon” is a vision of 1950s-era Americana set in a hopeful, wholesome suburban community where everything looks absolutely peachy keen. (Spoiler: It’s not.) It features the Coens’ patented mix-and-match blend of shaggy dog humor and bloody violence, along with a high-minded subplot that aims to give the story contemporary relevance. Featuring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore as the lead actors and George Clooney as director, it’s star-studded top to bottom.
And it’s strikingly bad, too somber to be a comedy and too dizzy to work as drama.
An animated opening sequence introduces us to Suburbicon, an oddly named neighborhood where every new Eisenhower-era home looks like the one next door. Those cookie-cutter developments, made famous by the legendary Levittown, Pa., development of single-family tract houses, promised the returning veterans of World War II affordable tranquillity away from the pollution, noise and crime of the big city.
A happy mailman (this is back when they were still called mailmen) demonstrates how cheery life is in Suburbicon. He smiles at every door — until he meets the newest residents, the hamlet’s only black family. He steps back with a forced, frozen smile and bids them farewell in a textbook case of passive aggression.
This is pretty accurate. By 1953, Levittown constituted the largest racially restricted community in the United States, with 70,000 people and no black residents. The policy of racial exclusivity came from the developers and remained in place until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional more than a decade later.
That being said, however, it matters not if the back story is true. A Coenesque crime comedy is an awkward venue for exploring weighty social issues, and it’s hard to watch this misbegotten farce without wishing that Clooney and collaborator Grant Heslov (who has assisted on the scripts of other Clooney projects, including “The Monuments Men” and “Good Night, and Good Luck”) had decided to focus exclusively on the caper or the commentary.
The film is a collision of tones that would put a demolition derby to shame. Damon plays Gardner Lodge, a plain vanilla 1950s father with a secret life who is going through a midlife crisis and then some. His wife (Moore, who also plays the woman’s twin) is murdered. Their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) gets even more traumatized when he concludes that his father and aunt (Moore again) are hiding something about the homicide. As usual in the Coen world, the best laid plans of imbeciles go awry, and characters are soon beating, stabbing, poisoning and killing one another in car crashes.
As distressing as this all sounds, it’s the kind of foul play the Coens could turn to zany fun in their own film. But in Clooney’s hands (remember “Leatherheads” or “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”?), it’s even worse than it sounds.
Yet, it’s the disconnected subplot about the suburb’s new black residents, menaced by mobs at their home, right across from the Lodge residence, that seems like the biggest strategic error. Both sides of the film lift up a rock to expose the wormy things crawling beneath, neither in a way that’s dramatically effective.
Fortunately, we’ve still got Isaac (the title character in the Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis”) as the hilarious investigator. They’ll never take that away from us.