'80s comedies, 1980s films, adult friendships, Brother Theodore, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, cinema, comedies, Corey Feldman, Courtney Gains, Dana Olsen, dark comedies, Dick MIller, eccentric people, film reviews, films, Gale Gordon, Gremlins, Henry Gibson, Jerry Goldsmith, Joe Dante, Movies, mysteries, neighbors, Rick Ducommun, Robert M. Stevens, strange families, suburban homes, suburban life, suburbia, The 'Burbs, Tom Hanks, Wendy Schaal
Ah, suburbia: to some, the identical, immaculately maintained homes, on perfectly manicured lawns, at the ends of respectably located cul de sacs, are the ultimate light at the end of the tunnel, the happy reward for a life properly lived. Two-car garages, Scrabble with the Wilsons on Tuesday, beers and polite small-talk with the guys on Thursdays, regular garbage pick-up plus recycling (separate the glass) and close proximity to a dog park. Neighborhood watch keeps them safe, every kid gets invited to the birthday parties and there’s always someone around to lend them a wrench, ride or shoulder. Do you smell that? Fresh-cut grass and fresh-baked cookies, I do believe. Yes, indeed, neighborino…for some folks, suburbia is one sweet dream.
To others, however, it might be a little closer to hell on earth. All of those rows of tightly packed, anonymous houses, yards so close you can sneeze and hit your neighbor, tight streets choked with cars and children. The Wilsons are always complaining about the branches on your scrawny tree, there’s always dog shit on your lawn and some jerk keeps throwing fast food trash into your recycle bin. Every identical window contains an identical pair of staring eyes and they always seem to be interested in every single thing you do. Do you smell that? If so, call the HOA: there’s probably a regulation against it. And what, exactly, is your neighbor doing in his garage at 3 in the morning?
Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989) deals with the head-on collision between the dream and the nightmare of suburbia, territory that’s been fertile ground for cinema for some time. Think back to films like Neighbors (1981), with Jim Belushi and Dan Ackroyd or Neighbors (2014), with Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, if you prefer. Don’t forget about Parents (1989), Serial Mom (1994) or Blue Velvet (1986), either. Since this is Dante we’re dealing with, the mischievous imp behind The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984) and Matinee (1993), we know that The ‘Burbs will examine suburbia through a darkly comic lens: since it stars Tom Hanks, one of the biggest, most likable actors of the ’80s and ’90s, we know that the ride won’t be too dark…ol’ Tom wouldn’t do us like that. In the process, we get a film that aspires to some of the same dark power as films like Neighbors (1981) and Parents, yet, ultimately, tempers everything with the kind of “feel-goodism” that was par for the course in many ’80s films. It’s no Gremlins but, if you think about it…what is?
In many ways, Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) is the prototypical ’80s every-man: wife, son, house in the suburbs, makes decent money, lots of kooky neighbors, cheerful outlook on life, if slightly hassled, over-worked and a little too high-strung. He doesn’t take enough time off, knows everyone on the block by name and is a little too susceptible to peer pressure. His best buddy and next-door-neighbor, Art (Rick Ducommun), is high maintenance, the kind of guy who barges into your kitchen and starts eating your breakfast. Ray’s neighborhood also includes retired (and slightly wackadoodle) Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) and his much younger wife, Bonnie (Wendy Schaal); old Walter (Gale Gordon) and his yappy little dog; and Ricky (Corey Feldman), the teenager who uses the neighborhood as his own, personal TV show. At Hinkley Hills, life is good.
Trouble comes in the form of Ray’s secretive new next-door-neighbors, the Klopeks. Rarely seen and never spoken with, the Klopeks violate the established order of the neighborhood by standing outside of the accepted social order. They don’t lend sugar, they don’t share a beer…they don’t seem to do much of anything, although strange sounds and smells seem to come from the decidedly sinister-looking house at odd hours of the night. Egged on by Art and Mark, Ray begins to view the neighbors with a suspicious eye, especially when efforts to meet them are continually (and comically) rebuffed.
When Walter seems to disappear, however, Art and Mark are convinced that the Klopeks are to blame. Despite the level-headed sanity of Ray’s wife, Carol (Carrie Fisher), Ray finds himself going down the rabbit-hole of paranoia and fear: are the Klopeks Satanists? Murderers? Aliens? Robots? There’s only one way to find out: breach the unknown and actually enter the Klopeks home. What they find there, however, will both answer and raise a multitude of questions. Just who are the Klopeks and what are they doing at Hinkley Hills? Good thing Ray and the Subarbanites are on the case!
For the most part, The ‘Burbs is a fun, if rather typical, ’80s comedy: vibrant, fast-paced, often silly and/or slapsticky, with just enough of a dark edge to distinguish it from the pack. The edge, of course, comes from director Joe Dante, the genre auteur who gifted us with such unforgettable films as the original Piranha (1978), Gremlins and its sequel, The Howling, Explorers (1985) and The Hole (2009). Dante is an absolute wizard at combining humor and horror, although he dabbles in plenty of non-horror-related fare, as well (see Explorers, among others). There are plenty of horror elements in The ‘Burbs, not least of which are the spook-show organs that signal the Klopeks and their home, although the film is not actually a horror movie.
Rather, the film is a clever dissection of suburban life, albeit one that gets tempered a bit by the twist resolution that spins the narrative in a decidedly “safer” direction. Dante’s intent can best be summed up in the penultimate scene where Ray publicly denounces all of the terrible things that he and his friends have done to the Klopeks, all in the pursuit of uncovering their “otherness.” The mysterious, secretive Klopeks aren’t the lunatics, he shouts: their supposedly “normal” neighbors are. We have seen the enemy and it is us, if you will. It’s a bracing notion, certainly one of the high points of writer Dana Olsen’s script, and one that Dante wrings every last ounce of irony from. Too bad, then, that things get unraveled so soon after, although I can chalk that up to the Hollywood propensity for a happy ending more than anything else.
Hanks, of course, is Hanks. Let’s be frank…love him or hate him, Tom Hanks is the epitome of a box office star for one simple reason: he’s impossibly likable on-screen. Despite playing some of the most high-strung, needy, nerdy, goofy and nebbishy characters this side of Woody Allen, Hanks always manages to be the center of attention. He has genuine “it” factor, that ill-defined star quality that separates the good from the great and it’s an effortless quality: we always pull for Ray because he’s Tom Hanks…you really want to let that guy down?
It’s not a solo show, of course (that would come a bit later): there’s plenty of support in this particular back-field. Rick Ducommun is an able foil as the oafish, if empathetic, Art: we buy the relationship between him and Hanks even if we often want to slap the smirk off his face. Ducommun gets several funny scenes including a great bit with a great dane, a good ol’ “Satanic chant” and a nice closing monologue about the power of suburbanites. Dern brings a reasonable amount of unreason to the nutty Lt. Rumsfield but we expect nothing less from our favorite nutjob. While it’s not much different from his other roles, it’s always nice to see him in something light and there’s a rare and sublime joy to the scene where he (repeatedly) puts his feet through the Klopek porch.
It’s always good to see Carrie Fisher in something light and she brings some nice nuance to a character that could have been too hectoring or, alternately, just wallpaper. I liked Ray and Carol’s relationship and thought that her casual acceptance of the situation, at the end, was a really nice, subtle comment on the myriad Ditto Feldman, who takes the stereotypical snarky teen next-door and makes him a lot more fun, cool and likable than he could’ve been. His enthusiasm over the neighborhood is the furthest thing from modern-day ennui and it’s kinda awesome to see someone so genuinely interested in something so square as his neighborhood. On the Klopek side, we have the always dependable Henry Gibson as the patriarch, Brother Theodore (a frequent voice actor who finished his 40+year career in film with The ‘Burbs) as salty Uncle Reuben and Courtney Gains as the buck-toothed Hans.
While there’s a lot working in The ‘Burbs favor, this has always been a film that I like more than love. For one thing, I find the heavy-handed elements, such as the musical cues and slapstick, to be a little tedious and the film is at least 20 minutes longer than it needs to be. Some of the setpieces, like the bee attack, are great, while others, like Art’s shock, fall a little flat. There’s an awful lot of mugging going on (Hanks is especially guilt of this) and, with the exception of Gibson’s Dr. Klopek, the other Klopeks are rather under-utilized. There are also a few details, like the mysterious wind, that are never explained. By and large, however, my biggest issue comes with the ending, which reverses the deliciously ironic note that the film promises to end on before going in a much more conventional direction. To be honest, it’s kind of a bummer, even though the final chase/fight is lots of fun.
All in all, The ‘Burbs is fun but it’s certainly no Gremlins. While there are plenty of genuinely funny moments here, the sharp edges are sanded down just enough to make the whole thing seem just a little too safe. If you’re looking to stroll the darker streets of suburbia, I’d have to recommend Parents over this one. If you just want to spend a little time with some eccentric neighbors and have the luxury of leaving them behind after 100 minutes, however, there’s certainly nothing wrong with checking into The ‘Burbs. It’s no American dream but it ain’t a nightmare, either.