Of all the films I saw at this year’s Venice Film Festival, none divided audiences more than George Clooney’s black comedy Suburbicon, which some absolutely loved and others just as wholeheartedly disliked.
I tilt more towards the former camp. It’s immensely stylish, darkly funny, and has dialogue partly written by the Coen brothers, which never hurts.
It also has Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac, although stealing their collective thunder is the English child actor Noah Jupe, who played Hugh Laurie’s son in the BBC drama, The Night Manager.
He is tremendously good here, and shining in such illustrious company offers further evidence that he is a talent to watch.
His character, Nicky Lodge, provides a story of murder, greed and bigotry with its moral core. Most of the grown-ups around little Nicky are morally irredeemable, for one reason or another, and that includes his father, Gardner, played by Damon in one of those everyman performances of his.
Gardner has a haircut as neat as his tie-knot, is superficially decent and God-fearing, but has no innate decency at all. Aptly, this everyman lives in everytown, which is just the same: inoffensive on the outside, rotten within.
The Lodges’ home is in Suburbicon, a model community built in 1947 and clearly based on Levittown, the prototype of the neat, purpose-built post-war American suburb.
It is now the turn of the 1960s and the town has everything anyone could wish for, except bi-racial harmony.
When a quiet, genteel black family moves in, the middle-class white folk of Suburbicon express their outrage in a petition.
Soon, a vicious campaign is under way to drive out the newcomers with drums and even choirs outside their house at all hours of the day and night. Alas, this is based on an actual 1957 case of sustained harassment in Levittown.
Just to remove any ambiguity, Clooney gives his family the same name, Myers, as the real-life victims.
Suburbicon. Picture: Fcebook/ Alex J. Berliner/ABImages
Yet for the rest of the film, this story unfolds in parallel, hardly ever converging, with something else happening across the street, where the Lodges live. Gardner is married to Rose (Julianne Moore), who has been left wheelchair-bound after a car accident. Her sister, Maggie (also played by Moore), is paying them a visit, helping to look after Nicky.
One night, two brutish men enter their home. The Lodges are all tied up and chloroformed, with fatal consequences for one of them.
At first, we are led to believe that this might have something to do with the fact that young Nicky, earlier that day, was sent to play baseball with the new black kid opposite.
Do the two men represent some terrible gang of white-supremacist vigilantes. But no, as I say, the twin narratives of this film do not collide, which can be a little disconcerting, almost as if the writing team – the Coens, Clooney, and his regular collaborator, Grant Heslov – weren’t sure whether either storyline was quite strong enough on its own.
Still, there are enough pleasures for this not to matter, not least Oscar Isaac’s arrival, late in the film, as a canny insurance claims investigator.
By now it has become clear exactly what is going on, though Clooney has kept us waiting.
To reveal anything more would count as a spoiler, but suffice to say that Coen fans will be reminded strongly of the brothers’ wonderful 1996 film Fargo.
Suburbicon is not quite in the same league, but it is thoroughly entertaining nonetheless.