By Eleanor Ringel Cater
That smell coming from your nearby multiplex isn’t stale popcorn. It’s “Suburbicon.”
Here’s the thing: All the machinations that go into making a movie usually don’t interest me. What counts is whatever made it up on the screen.
But a bit of backstory may be in order in this case.
Reportedly, “Suburbicon” began as a 1986 screenplay written by the brothers Coen, who’d just smashed their way into movie-lovers’ consciousness with their amazing1984 film, “Blood Simple.”
“Suburbicon,” as it was then, was more of the same. A wicked tale, equal parts blood and giggles. Something along the lines of Billy Wilder’s classic “Double Indemnity.” But the brothers were never satisfied with the end product and so the script sat in the proverbial back drawer for decades.
Along comes George Clooney, with his producing partner, Grant Heslov. Apparently, they couldn’t crack the original script either, so they added another story — a kind of parallel plot focusing on what happens when the Mayers, a nice middle-class African-American family, moves into “nice” middle-class Suburbicon, a model of the modern suburban dream, circa 1959.
Reportedly, this part of the story is based on actual event that occurred in a Pennsylvania suburb in the late ‘50s. It is, as you might expect, utterly nauseating. The cheerful mailman asks Mrs. Mayers if he can speak to the lady of the house and is taken aback when she says he’s talking to her (she’s not the maid??).
Even more sickening is some archival footage — a TV interview with a prim white woman who could’ve lived next door to the Cleavers (as in Beaver). She’s just, well, disturbed that “they” don’t try to better themselves before they think they can live wherever they want next to whomever they want.
Meanwhile, next door to the Mayers, there’s the Lodge family: Gardner (Matt Damon), his wife Rose and her twin sister Margaret (one blonde; one brunette; both played by Julianne Moore), and their young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe).
As the trailers have already revealed, the movie begins with a home invasion. The family is tied up and chloroformed. Everyone wakes up okay except Rose. Already in poor health, she’s done in.
Because Nicky “needs” a mother, Margaret moves in. Oddly, she dyes her hair blonde…
As so many Coen brother movies have reminded us, the best laid plans of anybody or anything rarely go as planned and that pretty much happens here. But while Gardner contends with loose ends and a nosy insurance agent (Oscar Isaac, unrecognizable and quite wonderful), the antipathy toward the Mayers escalates into mob violence.
The manicured lawns and Donna Reed coffee klatches are all too familiar. Essentially, Suburbicon is one town over from Lumberton (“Blue Velvet”) and just downstate from any number of “Twilight Zone’s” perfect little hamlets.
The cast members do the best they can — especially young Jupe and Moore (who’s been here before in “Far From Heaven.”) But Damon’s fondness for characters in nerd glasses and sporting pocket protectors (“The Good Shepherd,” “The Informant!”) makes his work seem all too familiar, too.
There are, however, two moments that I have to believe are pure Coen and I wish had been part of a better film.
One involves death by PB&J sandwich.
The other is a crazy exchange between Gardner and a town cop. “I thought you were Jewish,” the cop says. “Because of your last name.”
“Lodge?” gasps Gardner, who has a lot more on his plate than his religious affiliation.
“Yeah,” the cop replies. “Sounded Jewish.”
That’s the Coens, being not-so-serious men.