The idea of making America great again, that concept that defined the Trump campaign, and now continues to identify far-right politics, is steeped in a nostalgia of “simpler times.” Times when kids felt safe to explore the neighborhood, times when jobs were plentiful, and nobody had to worry about pesky things like gender, sexual, racial, or cultural identity. Of course, this idealized, selective-memory America ignores that for many — people of color, women, or LGBTQ individuals, among others — America has never actually been that great. Pick any decade, scratch the surface, and you’ll find extensive rot beneath.
George Clooney’s new film Suburbicon is very obviously a response to the MAGA line of thinking. The film uses two parallel stories to explore both the hidden nastiness of the archetypal white, suburban family, and the day-to-day racism faced by an African-American family trying to achieve their own American dream. It’s a setup ripe with allegorical potential, but while Suburbicon is built on good bones, it’s an unfocused mess that wastes its opportunity.
The plot that kick-starts the film is the arrival of the Mayers family to the film’s titular all-white 1950s suburban enclave, and the neighborhood’s immediate violent reaction. However, the action quickly shifts to focus on the white Lodge family, led by patriarch Gardner (Matt Damon). Shortly after (but unrelated to) the Mayers’ arrival, the Lodges experience a violent home invasion in which Gardner’s disabled wife Rose (Julianne Moore) is killed. The movie switches between the escalating absurdity of the Lodge family’s situation, and the horrible, all-too-common racism and violence faced by the Mayers family.
Having these two stories run literally side by side is an interesting concept. But unfortunately, it’s not a balance the film is prepared to pull off. The deceptively complex scheme that makes up Damon’s plot is the real focus of the story here. The Mayers family’s side-plot feels underdeveloped, and it is; Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov essentially added it to Joel and Ethan Coen’s existing script, in which the black family never appeared.
The result is that instead of two plots complementing each other, Suburbicon’s two stories are both watered down, with confusing shifts between the two. The slow reveal of Damon’s true nature, likely left over from the original script, makes it still more perplexing.
Suburbicon takes a long time to make its point, and it doesn’t seem to be a point that needed making. Noting the erroneous belief in America’s idealized past is valid, but it doesn’t feel as if the movie adds much to the ongoing conversation. Reading the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, or watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out would tell you the same thing in a more engaging way, in the same amount of time. Suburbicon was made with good intentions, but it’s ultimately a bland disappointment that treads well-worn territory poorly.