In “Here Comes the Neighborhood”—Episode 12 of South Park’s fifth season, which aired in 2001—the Colorado mountain town is thrown into disarray when, out of nowhere, it gets overrun by an influx of black people. And not just any black people: rich black people. Oprah, Snoop Dogg, the artist then known as P. Diddy, Magic Johnson, Will and Jada Smith, and many others of the like descend on the “undiscovered” South Park after the town’s token black kid, Token Black, posts an ad in Forbes magazine. The new residents arrive in droves, colonizing the town with garish McMansions and forcing this self-described white-trash community to have to contend with the newcomers’ spoiled-brat, polo-playing kids, who call their parents Mummy and Duddy, like a Victorian novelist’s nightmare of upper-crust gentility.
Obviously, it all goes to shit.
“Seems like all of a sudden South Park is being overrun by those types,” says Herbert Garrison, who’s standing outside of a black family’s home with a mob of fellow poor whites. By “those types” Garrison means rich people, of course. “I don’t take kindly to rich folk,” says another townie. “I remember back in the day, rich folk weren’t even allowed in South Park.”
The townies reduce the newcomers to a single epithet: richers. Pretty soon, the local bar becomes segregated (“This bar is for people living below their means!”) and the poor white citizens burn a lowercase, crosslike t—for “time to leave”—on a black family’s lawn.
It’s all routine, except it’s not. You know what all the signs and symbols are meant to invoke, even as the show is flipping it all on its head with a contemporary smirk, and even as race never explicitly enters the picture until the episode’s glorious final punch line. It is, most literally, a send-up of the racism of the 1950s and ’60s, in which the arrival of black families to white enclaves like Levittown, Pennsylvania, and black students—such as the Little Rock Nine—to white public schools engendered all manner of white outrage across the country. Thanks largely to movies, TV, and our peculiarly blinkered insistence on repeating the same handful of tropes of American racism over and over in our art, this is a very familiar story—which is part of what makes this early, great episode of South Park, and great satire generally, so thrilling. It’s a revision of what we think we know.
What South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to understand is that ’50s suburban racism—and ’50s suburbia generally—is a meme. It’s a grab bag of familiar signifiers: the postwar planned communities with their manicured lawns and long, curvaceous drives; the hapless “aw, shucks” paper boys named Timmy or Tommy; the long skirts with matching hair ribbons; and—best of all—the unspoken disclaimers of “I believe in equality between the races, but …” that silently undergird all of the above. Maybe we don’t all know the lyrics, but most of us could hum along to the melody. It’s prime terrain for smart satire, in other words, because it’s a composite of cultural memories we all seem to agree on. Thus, if you’re going to make a movie about this era, don’t just reiterate the tropes: We’ve already seen that movie. Do something with it.
If only George Clooney were a student of South Park, or at least of his own subject. Perhaps then his sixth directorial effort, Suburbicon, might really have been something. Instead, it is ultimately just a morass of conflicting, misguided intentions. Suburbicon, a satirical parable, is a passable imitation of the Leave It to Beaver era’s hypocritical politics. Its dark humor, poise, and fussy period detail all suggest the hand of a filmmaker with more than just nostalgia on his mind. The movie is partially based on a script about a ’50s household that descends into murder and insurance fraud written by Joel and Ethan Coen in the 1980s, right on the heels of their first feature, Blood Simple. That’s the part you see in the movie’s trailer, which would have you think Suburbicon is simply a Coenesque mob-murder noir. That’s half of the movie, to be sure, but Clooney, working with frequent screenwriting partner Grant Heslov, amended the Coens’ script to include a parallel story: a black family moving into this all-white town. It’s based on the story of Levittown, the postwar planned community of 17,000 cookie-cutter homes designed by William Levitt to exclude, among others, black people. In 1957, a Jewish couple in Levittown sold their home to a black couple, William and Daisy Myers, whose arrival sparked harassment and white mob violence. It’s a key incident in civil rights history, a moment when the veneer of racial civility that ostensibly distinguished the North from the South got exposed for the bullshit it actually was.
In Clooney’s movie, the Myers family is renamed Mayers, and the white family next door, the Lodges, makes an effort, at first, to not alienate them. The Lodges—Gardner (Matt Damon), Rose (Julianne Moore), their son, Nicky, and Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore)—have their own problems. Gardner and Rose have had an unhappy marriage ever since a car accident left her paralyzed below the waist. Gardner happened to be driving that car, and Rose’s constant displeasure seems ever poised to remind him of that fact. Margaret, meanwhile, is the chipper and, more importantly, completely identical alternative. What happens between herself and Gardner is, I guess, pretty predictable: They fall in love, concoct a mobster home invasion that leaves Rose conveniently dead, and scam to run away to Aruba with Rose’s insurance money. You know, a regular week in the suburbs.
On its own, the murder plot is actually kind of funny—picture Fargo but with twin Julianne Moores and a 12-year-old liability, the sweetly honest Nicky, who becomes a mob target once he realizes what’s going on. You can tell the Coens had a hand in this. But then, there goes the neighborhood—rather, the movie. Mixed up with scenes of insurance scamming and wife murder are scenes of the strong, largely silent Mayers family getting harassed in their home. A family next door builds up a high border fence—an anomaly in this town—and white Suburbicon citizens hang over it day and night, banging cans and drums and shouting epithets as Mrs. Mayers (a wonderful Karimah Westbrook) tries to hang her laundry. The white townsfolk, their tranquility shaken up by the home invasion and murder of Rose Lodge, of course associate the Lodges’ misfortune with the arrival of this black family. “Nothing like this ever happens here,” one woman says. “This is a safe place.” Another responds, “Well, it was.” Meanwhile, Gardner Lodge continues to escape suspicion.
You can see where the movie is going with all of this. A white family is literally getting away with murder as, just next door, the downfall of the community is pinned on the proud black family that’s merely trying to get a piece of the American dream. Clooney really hypes up the irony: Gardner kills a guy in the middle of the street not one block away from the mob destroying the Mayers’s home and the cops trying to stop them. The irony may be easy, but it comes from an uneasy, albeit well-meaning place. It’s clear that Clooney wants to tell a story that resonates not only with the history of American racism through the ages but also with the present day. He told Deadline that the idea for the movie, which was filmed in late 2016, arose amid the last presidential campaign. “I’d been seeing a lot of things on the campaign trail, talking about scapegoating Mexicans and Muslims,” he said, “and I always like to look at stories backward and remember that nothing is new.” Moore, meanwhile, has said, “I don’t think anyone thought George was prescient in what we were shooting; we all felt we were talking about things that had happened in the past. But what’s happened recently”—referring to the August riots in Charlottesville, among other things—“has been absolutely shocking.”
So, to sum up: None of this is new, but somehow Clooney gets to seem like a man who saw into the future from his perch in 2016. Well, OK. There’s a lesson in this confusion. Clooney’s reversion to the ’50s to tell what he intended to be a contemporary lesson on racial history neatly sums up the persistently ahistorical attitude of many liberals today—people who’d rather believe that the election of Donald Trump, and the sleeping giant of racial supremacy he seems to have stirred awake, marks some vast rupture in American racial politics instead of simply relegitimizing the same old. Clooney signals that he knows as much when he says “nothing is new.” But the history he reproduces in his movie is that precise moment when racist white Northerners revealed themselves for who they really were—seemingly for the first time—not to black people, who by then knew better, but rather to other white people. This is the moment Clooney draws upon, with little self-awareness, as a sign of nothing having changed. He’s right—but not in the way he thinks he is.
For a movie like Suburbicon to make sense, and for the story of Levittown to resonate as a parable of the present, we have to buy the idea that Levittown’s sudden eruption of virulent, hypocritical racism is in some way parallel to our current moment. We have to buy the idea that the irony and hypocrisy of it is what’s compelling. That kind of amnesia lets us all off the hook, but that’s not the point. It allows us to latch onto a moment like Levittown in 1957 because it—like Trump’s election, or so we want to believe—marks a sudden break. We have to buy the idea of a national image that, only recently—say, within the last 11 months—got shattered. Never mind that the white supremacists and their allies who flocked to Charlottesville for the “Unite the Right” rally were doing so in defense of a Robert E. Lee statue that’d been standing in Emancipation Park since 1917. Is it fair to claim prescience or shock over something so persistently obvious? It’s worth considering that we keep using words like “idyllic” to describe towns like Levittown and, by extension, fictional towns like Suburbicon. At the far opposite end of the spectrum, we use a word like “underbelly” to describe what’s sordid and hidden away until, as in Clooney’s movie, it gets pushed to the forefront. But was Levittown ever idyllic for the Myers family?
Clooney, to his credit, does us the courtesy of quickly dispelling the Suburbicon ideal. When the movie starts, whites are already petitioning to get the Mayers family booted out—we never pretend the community is innocent. Clooney’s Frankensteined, double-edged script, such as it is, has a number of dangling threads that the director, were he not streamlining it all to assert his fairly basic thesis, could have made much more of. There’s an exceptional moment, for example, when a cop confuses Gardner for being Jewish—a suggestion that Gardner has unknowingly been marked as an outsider. In fact, he’s Episcopalian—code for liberal. Again, easy irony. Of course the guy who has his wife murdered, and who then shacks up with his wife’s twin sister and gets caught by his son spanking said sister with a table tennis paddle in a bit of suburban-lite kink, is Episcopalian. He of course has no racism in his bones, only the privilege of not having to acknowledge it one way or another. Clooney doesn’t know what to do with these loose ends, which all strain to add up to a rich, complex, conflicted movie. Only the friendship between Nicky, played by the exceptional Noah Jupe, and the Mayers’s son Andy (Tony Espinosa) rings true, and it’s because unlike everyone else, these boys really are innocent.
What does it say about Clooney that the best thing in his movie is, in fact, the idyllic suburban bullshit he’s going out of his way to dismiss? As a director, Clooney doesn’t have the verve or wit to pull off this concept or the uncanny period idiosyncrasies it demands. But he has given us a mighty wonderful suburb to look at: glossy, sunny, and spacious. The idea behind it is stale, but Clooney’s cinematographer, Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), gives the whole thing the kind of polished luster that elevates the period.
Clooney knows the style of the era, and he understands how to smartly amp up the script’s jokes, pivoting and wielding his camera with some of the same frantic energy of his characters. But he is less comfortable with weird shit. Some of the performances, on the other hand—particularly those by Moore and Oscar Isaac, who has a brief turn here as the skeptical insurance agent sent to investigate the Lodges’ claim—sing with the knowing genre intelligence that Clooney’s direction lacks. Moore, in particular, has perfected the lacquered, pasted-on perfection of ’50s domesticity that I’ve come to associate with her face. Then again, she’s had a lot of practice, including as recently as this year’s Kingsman sequel The Golden Circle, in which she plays a drug lord with a ’50s Americana fetish. That movie, at least, treated the meme of the era’s decorum like the grotesque inside joke it really is, just as South Park did.
Meanwhile, after all of that, Suburbicon’s black characters never rise above strong, silent abstractions: stereotypes, in other words. Is that why Suburbicon’s ads have almost completely left them out? Maybe the studio isn’t sure how to sell that story—maybe it ultimately has no business here. A smarter movie would’ve offered up those characters with a wink and a nudge, alluding to the fact that their proud silence is more or less how it goes in well-meaning movies like this one. No dice—and to think this is all in service of a movie whose ideas never grow much richer than what was telegraphed in its opening frames. You sense Clooney wanting to become not only an adventurous director worthy of a thorny Coen brothers script but also a moral artist. In a way, he is. The moral of Suburbicon is: Quit making Suburbicons. That’s not the lesson he set out to teach. But it’s the only one that sticks.