Like those talented pop singers who keep making valiant stabs at being actors — and vice versa — George Clooney can’t seem to stay away from the director’s chair. His filmmaking career started promisingly enough with “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (helped greatly by its Charlie Kaufman screenplay), but since then it’s been a parade of adequacies (“Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Ides of March”), mediocrity (“Leatherheads”) and downright catastrophe (“The Monuments Men”).
Clooney’s directorial legacy won’t get any help from “Suburbicon,” a garish and overblown crime melodrama that combines clumsy noir with lame jabs at 1950s suburban conformity and racism, two subjects whose satirical sell-by date are now decades past. (Is racism in the United States as toxic as ever? Absolutely. Is pointing out the existence of racism in the gleaming Eisenhower era the stuff of dramatic counterpoint or groundbreaking observation? Nope.) Written by Joel and Ethan Coen and Clooney and Grant Heslov, the film veers back and forth between the obvious and the ridiculous.
In the quaint mid-century planned community Suburbicon, the white residents have a collective meltdown when the first black family moves into the house next door to the Lodges. But the Lodges have problems of their own: Home intruders show up in the middle of the night, tying up Gardner (Matt Damon), his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore), their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe, “The Night Manager”) and Rose’s sister Maggie (also Moore — shades of her early work as twins on “As the World Turns”).
The robbers chloroform the family, but they go heavy enough on it for Rose that she winds up dying. Maggie sticks around to help out with Nicky, but the kid grows suspicious when the robbers turn up in a police lineup and Gardner and Maggie pretend not to recognize them. Gardner and Maggie, it turns out, have clumsily killed Rose for the insurance money, but loan sharks want it — assuming that there’s even a payout, since claims investigator Roger (Oscar Isaac) smells a big, fat rat.
There are plenty of ways that “Suburbicon” could have gone to have fun with this premise, but it chooses none of them — or, rather, it chooses all of them simultaneously and the mix never works. If the movie is intended to be a black comedy about an incompetent crime, then the ugly scenes of racism don’t fit. If it’s supposed to be a nightmarish tale of a child who knows something terrible but has no one who will believe him — think “The Fallen Idol” or “Parents” — Gardner’s crime is so sloppy and so quick to fall apart that the movie never builds upon the kind of tension necessary to tell that story.
And if it’s supposed to be a will-they-get-away-with-it crime drama, that evaporates once people get fireplace-pokered to death in the middle of the street and fire trucks start exploding. It’s all too much in too many directions, and the result is a mess, albeit an exquisitely art-directed one.
The name actors here commit themselves to their roles, despite the fact they all seem to be in different movies. (There is a nice bit of cat-and-mouse between Roger and Maggie, as he gets her to say more than she should about her poor sister’s “accident.”) Top honors go to young Jupe, who faces tragedy and terror, registering it all in his very expressive eyes.
The production design by James D. Bissell (“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”) nails the era without getting too cartoonish about it. There’s a tendency for movies set in the post-WWII boom to go crazy with the kidney-shaped coffee tables and the starburst light fixtures, but he lets the post-war design elements come out in little details like the coffee cups, the cocktail tumblers and Maggie’s checkout-girl uniform.
Composer Alexandre Desplat channels Bernard Herrmann as hard as he can to provide this movie with some genuinely suspenseful underpinnings, but the music winds up offering far more than the film can handle.
Just about everyone involved with “Suburbicon” has done and, one hopes, will do better. But here they’ve given us a mish-mosh of genres that should have been abandoned at the city limits.