There’s a certain glee that springs from a George Clooney-Joel/Ethan Coen collaboration. From O’Brother Where Art Thou to Intolerable Cruelty to the underrated Hail, Caesar!, their movies play almost like gag reels just before the actors crack up. You can almost see Clooney struggling to keep a straight face amid the absurdities.
Alas, there’s not much mirth in their latest adventure, Suburbicon, a black comedy that’s heavy on the darkness and woefully short on the gaiety.
Directed by Clooney and written with the Coens and regular co-conspirator Grant Heslov, Suburbicon tries to maintain several plot threads, but ends up knotting them in a brutal, bloody mess that leaves you wondering about the message of any of them.
Set in 1959 in a nameless state, Suburbicon kicks off with a hilarious commercial touting Suburbicon, a growing new suburb boasting its first high school and choir. “The only thing missing in Suburbicon,” the ad teases, “is YOU!”
Well, that and any minorities. Almost as quickly as the veneer of suburban life comes to life,” Suburbicon sods it with rotten apples, in the form of neighbors who really don’t want their neighborhood segregated and wear gruesome faces beneath pearly smiles. It’s ample story material, and has fueled some nightmare-neighborhood classics such as The Stepford Wives, The Truman Show and Blue Velvet.
That last film may have made the biggest impression on Clooney, who seems to model his movie based on that David Lynch masterwork. But where Velvet unspooled the hysteria slowly (from the discovery of a severed ear), Suburbicon can’t wait to prove this neighborhood needs more than a block captain.
Matt Damon plays Gardner Lodge, a seemingly model resident of Suburbicon. He’s got a sharp kid, a loving wife and a steady office job. Quickly, though, we learn that Gardner’s life is anything but model. His wife Margaret (Julianne Moore) was left crippled in a mysterious auto accident, and his sister-in-law Rose (also Moore, in a double role) is a little too friendly with Gardner, a little too cold to son Nicky (Noah Jupe), and a lot too familiar with family insurance policy.
If the first 15 minutes of Suburbicon waffles between Middle America and menace, it takes a decisive turn toward menace as the Lodge clan is tied up, robbed, and Margaret is murdered.  The rest of film (which moves briskly at under two hours) revolves around who, exactly, are the greatest threats to property values in Suburbicon: the murderers or the men with lawn mowers.
The movie is in such capable, familiar hands that it can’t help but be occasionally bright, even brilliant. There’s a clearly- plagiarized speech by a neighbor who declares he “has a dream” of a segregated suburb. And Damon’s vehicle of choice — his son’s beloved bicycle — is at once hilarious and cruel.
But the film eschews most of those jokes in favor of shocks of violence. Some of it works, including a Fargo-born assault on an insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac). But most of it largely produces a bitter taste for the adult characters in the film, all of whom are hardly admirable. It leaves us only with two boys caught between racial tension and home invaders to root for.
The Coens have always sprinkled their dark humor with dashes of gore. Here, though, it feels like the recipe was inverted: Violence sprinkled with humor. It leaves the film feeling unbalanced and unexpectedly sullen. The acting turns are stellar all, though there was no need go cast Moore twice, particularly when one character doesn’t live through the first act.
And the directing is solid. Clooney has tackled this genre before, with the terrific Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the autobiography of Gong Show creator Chuck Barris.  Maybe he just needed an oddball game show host to anchor his movie.