Okay, so I realize it is pretty lame to say one week that I am going to focus on obscure films of the moment and then, the very next week, review a movie from 1989, but this was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.
There are three motivating factors for today’s review of the obscure comedy masterpiece The ‘Burbs: Tom Hanks’ continued popularity as Robert Langdon and my desire to examine a time when his talents were put to better use, the fact that the film’s 20th anniversary is this year, and my own desire to finally grant lip service to the film from which I took my name. That and, quite frankly, The ‘Burbs is just a really funny movie and if you haven’t given it a chance at this point then you really are depriving yourself of a great experience.
This film is really one of the funniest I have ever seen. Directed by that maestro of seemingly disposable, B-movie style cinema, Joe Dante (Innerspace, Joe Versus the Volcano), it sports one of the greatest, albiet most unlikely, comedy ensembles ever to come together: Hanks, who at that moment was in his comedy prime, Bruce Dern, Rick Docummon, Carrie Fisher, Wendy Schaal, and Corey “the Feld”man (as Shep so affectionately refers to him). I remember hearing that Hanks was extremely disappointed when the film came out and didn’t do well, as he thought it was one of the better films he had done in his then young career. I still support it as one of the best films he has ever been in. It is ridiculous, juvenile, totally unrealistic, and one hell of a good time. In a movie like this, you get swept away by the weirdness of the characters and don’t look back. I enjoy this group of characters so much that I have always wished my neighborhood was as interesting as theirs.
The film’s plot is a quirky riff on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-brand of 50s horror, though the would-be degenerates in this case are suspected of being ritual killers rather than pod people. Ray Peterson (Hanks), is a to-himself suburbanite who has decided to laze around his home for a vacation week. His wife, Carol (Fisher), who acts more like Ray’s mother than his spouse, would rather see them head up to the lake, especially considering Ray’s growing curiosity about the family’s reclusive next door neighbors, the Klopeks (“Is that a Slavic name?” Ray asks, befuddled), who don’t seem to have left their house since they moved in a month earlier.
There is more about the Klopeks that gives Ray cause for alarm. Periodic bursts of electricity seem to spring from their basement. They seem to have no intention of ever tending to their festering yard. In their backyard one night, he spies three people digging furiously. Ray is the kind of middle-aged schlub who would happily let this go if it weren’t for his other neighbors, the portly, paranoid Art (Docummon) and the ex-soldier Rumsfield (Dern), who wants nothing more than another combat opportunity.
There are two other characters, Bonnie (Schall), Rumsfield’s much younger wife, and Ricky Butler (Feldman), the hormonal teenager who watches everything with an expression of “whoa, dude.” Together, the company start to investigate strange happenings in the neighborhood: Walter (Gale Gordon), the resident angry old man, seems to have left his house abruptly and left behind suspicious signs like a toupette on the stove (“these old guys never leave their hair lying around” Rumsfield says ominously). Art, who makes paranoid UFO conspiracy theorists look tame, wants nothing more than to string the Klopeks up as mass murderers. Carol is the voice of reason. Ray is somewhere in the middle, but has to face down his weird neighbors by the end of the story.
This is a fucking weird premise, I know. What makes the film so funny is that the screenplay, written by Dana Olsen, so perfectly understands the paranoia of these suburban schlubs and Dante, so underappreciated as a director, does such a good job making the film visually humorous. Take the scene where the company finally decide to visit the Klopek home. They go through introductions and then adjourn to an awkward scene in the living room. There is maybe one direct “joke” in the whole scene, but it is one of the funniest scenes in the movie simply because of the body language of the actors and the stilted, awkward angles that Dante uses in shooting it.
The other victory is in the film’s casting. The smallest roles are given the most precise attention to detail. The Klopek family themselves are cast with just the right balance of eccentricity and politeness. Henry Gibson, as the patriarch, affects an Eastern European accent where pauses seem to sit in all the wrong places. Brother Theodore, as his brother, Uncle Rubin, barks angry syllables and has his mouth forever turned upward in an outraged grimace. And Courtney Gains, as Hans, my namesake and the young man that these men seem to have adopted as a servant (I really don’t want to contemplate what kind), is too outlandishly weird for words; take a look at my profile picture and see what I mean.
The leads are all perfectly chosen as well. Fisher, famous as Princess Leia but funny in much of the rest of her career, is spot on here as the wife who could so easily be annoying but is really the most sensible person in the situation. Dern, rarely used in a comic role, relishes the opportunity–its as if the broken war veteran he played in Coming Home wanted nothing more than another tour in the jungle. Feldman, so easily dismissed as a stupid artifact of 80s comedy, is actually quite funny here, playing a spacey teenager who looks at his neighborhood as an entertainment there for his enjoyment.
The movie really excels because of the work of Hanks and Docummon, though. Docummon is someone that I didn’t see much from after the failure of this film. He was one of the drunks in Groundhog Day and he had a funny bit as the dad in Scary Movie, but the film’s lack of success probably robbed him of comedy stardom. Art really is a comic character for the ages; a chubby, cigar-smoking schmuck, he relishes the opportunity to unleash his paranoia onto absolutely anyone. Hanks has a far less appealing role as the boring straight man, but he finds ways to be funny without going over-the-top.
This movie really is layered with moment after moment of absolute gold. The explosion toward the end really is my favorite in any movie. The scene where Ray and Art discover the femur in the backyard is another classic. Comedy chemistry is never easy to come by, but when it happens we should cherish it. The ‘Burbs really is a movie you should watch over and over again. You won’t regret it.