Is it possible to become a worse filmmaker by making more films? “Suburbicon” is George Clooney’s sixth feature as a director and the latest spiral downward in terms of quality. After the inspired lunacy of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002) and the bracing civics lesson of “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), it’s as though Clooney said to himself “I guess I’m a director now” and started seeking out projects rather than wait for the right ones to inspire him.
Thus “Leatherheads” (2008), “The Ides of March” (2011), and “The Monuments Men” (2014), each more muddled and unnecessary than the last. With “Suburbicon,” Clooney takes what sounds great on paper — a screenplay by the Coen brothers (substantially rewritten by Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov), a cast that includes Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, and a ripely repressed 1950s setting — and reduces it to an actively unpleasant traffic jam.
Clooney’s not entirely to blame, since the script feels as though it was stapled together from scenes the Coens never got around to using for “Fargo.” The setting is a post-WWII Levittown called Suburbicon, presented with comic breathlessness as the best hope for America’s future. It’s neat, it’s safe, and it’s white.
The arrival of a middle-class black family puts the community in a panic, but, oddly, that’s just the background story. In one of those tidy little houses, homicidal secrets are brewing. A home invasion by two thugs (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) results in the death of the wheelchair-bound Rose Logan (Moore), which rather conveniently leaves her husband Gardner (Damon) free to marry the dead woman’s sister Maggie (also Moore). The young Logan boy, Nicky (Noah Jupe), begins to suspect the worst. Did dad have something to do with mom’s death? Is the son next?
You can still see the Coens’ original fingerprints on the project, and you know that murder will out and that the criminals will display amusing levels of incompetence and stupidity. But because we’re watching the unraveling of Gardner’s plans through the eyes of the traumatized Nicky — Jupe gives an excellent performance, mature beyond his years — the black-comedy “fun” curdles before it ever gets started.
Meanwhile, the black family undergoes an escalating siege from a mob bent on terrorizing them into relocating. Yet, having stoked our sympathies for the elegant, distressed mom (Karimah Westbrook) and for Nicky’s friendship with her young son (Tony Espinosa), “Suburbicon” keeps returning to the stale neo-noir next door.
It’s mildly entertaining to watch Damon’s uptight character come unglued, and when Isaac turns up mid-movie as a motormouthed insurance investigator the movie gets a needed jolt of energy. By then, though, you may have realized that the characters we most care about — the kid and the African-American family — are precisely the ones the filmmakers don’t.
What’s the point of “Suburbicon”? To show that 1950s suburbanites were racist? That’s not exactly news, although when the white neighbors co-opt the language of the civil rights struggle — “with God’s help, we will overcome” — it’s a good, dark joke on the way ideas like “freedom of speech” are currently used as cudgels by those who are mostly interested in shutting other people up.
Is the film’s purpose to make us laugh or to make us think? Plenty of movies do both, but “Suburbicon” never settles on a consistent tone, and the various approaches — drama, slapstick, social satire, suspense — cancel each other out. Watching this movie is an experience in irritation, as if the audience were a cat and the filmmakers kept petting it in the wrong direction.
Based on the pungent camerawork and the string-heavy soundtrack, it’s possible Clooney thinks he’s making a Hitchcock riff with added social significance — a beast that can’t actually exist, since the essence of Hitch was his genius for building cinematic worlds that have nothing to do with the real one. Moviegoers with long and arcane memories may recall “Parents” (1989), a darker, campier, but more successful tale of murderous moms and dads in 1950s suburbia (directed by actor Bob Balaban, no less).
Everyone else is invited to imagine what the Coens themselves might have done with their own screenplay. Including hanging onto it themselves, or — better yet — putting it back in the drawer.
Directed by George Clooney. Written by Clooney, Grant Heslov, Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 105 minutes. R (violence, language, some sexuality).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.