SUBURBICON (15) ★★☆☆☆

THE idea of burrowing under the perceived serenity of suburban, white-picket-fence Americana to see what danger lies beneath has been a stalwart of cinema, with filmmakers from David Lynch with Blue Velvet to Bryan Forbes with The Stepford Wives all picking away at that perceived picture-perfect life.

This curious misfire from director George Clooney attempts to do its own peeling away of that shiny top layer but does so to disappointingly clunky and garbled effect, trying to be too many things at once and ending up leaving all of them out of focus.

Suburbicon is a 1950s neighbourhood conceived to be the nicest possible place to live. But, alas, everything isn’t as rosy as it seems. When a couple of thugs break into the home of mild-mannered businessman Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), they end up causing the death of his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore) which leaves Lodge’s impressionable young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) without a mother.

In an attempt to help his family move on from the tragedy, Lodge invites his late wife’s sister Margaret (also played by Moore) to stay with them. A woman quick to jump into her sister’s place, she soon reveals her true colours, asserting domestic power, sleeping with Lodge and becoming increasingly intolerant of Nicky’s understandably erratic behaviour.

Meanwhile, Lodge has to deal with the men who ruined his family’s idyllic life taunting him at home and in his workplace, as well as rising tensions on his street when the so-called Betterment Committee start raising objections to the neighbourhood’s first black family moving in. Then there’s the particularly incessant insurance claims investigator, Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac), who smells something fishy about Lodge’s policy.

It’s not a film without a certain sense of ambition, solid performances and some timely themes. However, it heavy-handedly thuds together its ideas in a way that never truly allows them to sink in. The staleness of this disheartening cinematic mishap may have something to do with the fact that the Coens first wrote the script more than 30 years ago and, now out of their directorial hands, something just doesn’t click.

The problem is it never gets a grasp on its themes or narrative intentions in any sort of meaningful or compelling way. It’s like a handful of different films awkwardly squashed into a misshapen ball, each desperately vying for screen time; a social satire on white American suburbia, a commentary on racial intolerance, a straight-up murder mystery. They’re all valid but each is left hazy and unsatisfying in service of moving on to the other, sometimes minute to minute.

Clooney has made very good films in the past, not least his impressively sly debut Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and political period drama Good Night And Good Luck, but his latest is a frustratingly awkward pick ’n’ mix of tones.

The vague outline of an effective Coen brothers’ caper is barely visible, but where their direction might have made the black comedy sting and the social commentary permeate, Clooney’s film rings as hollow as the pristine suburban façade that it’s supposed to be tearing down.