The ‘Burbs

The BurbsSynopsis: Tom Hanks portrays suburbanite Ray Peterson, whose plans for a week’s peaceful vacation at home are disturbed by the creepy new Klopek family in this outrageous suspense-comedy directed by Joe Dante.

Ray gets into trouble with his neighbors; a hefty busybody (Rick Ducommun), a freaked-out ex-soldier (Bruce Dern) and a spacey teenager (Corey Feldman), but when the neighborhood grouch suddenly disappears they all band together to investigate the Klopek place.

The ‘Burbs blends slapstick comedy and spine-thrilling mystery with Tom Hanks’ typical witty humor.

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The ‘Burbs 6.75

eyelights: Tom Hanks. Bruce Dern. Carrie Fisher. Wendy Schaal. the basic premise. the creative camera work. the tongue-in-cheek score.
eyesores: Corey Feldman. the horrible third act.

“I think the message to, uh, psychos, fanatics, murderers, nutcases all over the world is, uh, “do not mess with suburbanites”. Because, uh, frankly we’re just not gonna take it any more. Ya know, we’re not gonna be content to look after our lawns and wax our cars, paint out houses. We’re out to get them, Don, we are out to get them.”

I’m a Klopek.

The Klopeks are the mysterious new residents of a small, tight-knit community on Mayfield Place, in Hinkley Hills. Even a month after their arrival, no one knows much about them; they are rarely seen, they barely leave the house and, when they do, they behave in unusual ways that pique the residents’ curiosity. And fuel their paranoia.

Ray Petersen, their next door neighbour, wakes up at night with a feeling of dread because of them. Their house is unkempt, the lawn is unmowed, the curtains remains drawn at all times, and there are strange noises coming from their basement which suggest that nightmarish experiments are taking place in there. It’s all very disquieting.

Who are these people?

Well, Ray and his neighbours intend to find out: at home for a week of self-indulgent staycation (his spouse wants to go to the cottage, but he he’d rather putter about), Ray has plenty of time to indulge his growing curiosity. Unfortunately, prodded by his excitable neighbour Art and the volatile Lt. Rumsfield, things get severely out of hand.

This quiet suburban neighbourhood will be quiet no longer.

When ‘The ‘Burbs’ came out in 1989, I couldn’t have cared less. Aside for ‘Splash’, which I adored and had seen a few times, I had absolutely no interest in Tom Hanks’ movies. Aside for ‘Big’, which had been a recent hit of his, his career seemed destined to reside in the b-list comedy category – and ‘The ‘Burbs’ rested firmly in there.

I recently picked up a 3-movie DVD set of some of Tom Hanks’ early films for Universal Pictures and this was included in it. I don’t remember what compelled me to pick it up (the low, low price?), but I started to become intrigued with ‘The ‘Burbs’ when I discovered that it was intended to be a horror comedy – and that it was directed by John Landis.

When I finally made a point of watching ‘The ‘Burbs’, I was pleasantly surprised. At first. I found the characters pleasant (albeit bordering on stereotypical), enjoyed the set-up, liked the zany camera work and kitschy music that enhanced the humour and even found a kinship in Ray, being someone who likes staycations quite a bit myself (they’re a stress-free way of disconnecting from the everyday stuff).

But I was particularly amused by the Klopeks and the reactions they elicited. I tend to keep to myself a fair bit, and their house made me think of my own, with its untended front and backyard, drawn blinds, and so forth. I immediately imagined myself as the Klopeks of my own neighbourhood and could see how my neighbours might view my home as the odd one out, perhaps even with some disquiet.

This amused me to some degree (blame my twisted sense of humour).

It’s only until a little past the halfway mark, when Ray, Rumsfield and their spouses eventually manage to get into the Klopeks’ house, that I felt the picture slipping. What made the picture interesting were all the assumptions and misconceptions that the neighbours had, and how they reacted to the mysterious Klopek family. Going inside the house lifted the veil on that mystery, thereby ruining the tone.

It was its death knell.

I understand that the filmmakers probably couldn’t draw it out any longer without losing their audience (who usually want to be spoon-fed and can’t stand anything being left unsaid) and felt that they had to satisfy their curiosity as much as the fictional neighbourhood’s. Unfortunately, the result was a rapid downward spiral into mediocrity – with the filmmakers trying to dial it up but failing.

At least some of the cast carried the picture during that time:

  • Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks as… um… Ray. Hanks is excellent as a sort of everyman, and he delivered exactly that here. He doesn’t play it up for comic effect, instead allowing the material to work by itself. It’s no great performance, but it’s solid, competent.
  • Carrie Fisher is equally solid as Ray’s spouse, Carol. Here, she plays her part in a similar way to that of Marie in ‘When Harry Met Sally‘: warm, understanding, soft. She doesn’t steal the show (she’s no Princess Leia), but she makes of Carol an excellent secondary character.
  • Bruce Dern is absolutely amazing in the part of Rumsfield. The character is a caricature, but Dern makes him seem just credible enough that you can buy into it. He has a youthful vigour about him and I love how hilariously direct, uncensored, he is.
  • Wendy Schaal plays Bonnie, Rumsfield’ spouse. Now, she doesn’t play a particularly notable character, but she plays up Bonnie’s Barbie doll qualities to such a devastating effect, that it fogged up my brain some. Anytime she was on screen was a big plus for me.

But then there were two irritating performances to counterpoint them:

  • Rick Ducommun plays Art, a gun-toting, crow-hunting neighbour and friend of Ray’s. This is a guy who helps himself to anyone’s fridge, and he’s a bit of an idiot. He’s not exactly the kind of person I would hang around with and wondered why in the world Ray would.

Ducommun played the part okay, but he has a poor man’s Dan Aykroyd or John Candy kind of quality about him – down to the accent. Like them, he’s also Canadian, and I wonder if it was merely a cultural acting style. Either way, I hate that brand of delivery with a passion.

  • Corey Feldman plays Ricky, a teenager who lives next to Ray’s without any parental supervision. We don’t know his story and he’s pretty much irrelevant to the plot, but he serves as a bystander, constantly observing the actions and sometimes commenting on it.

The problem is that Feldman, who had been rather good in ‘Stand By Me‘ and ‘Gremlins‘ really sucked here. He played Ricky like a p!$$-poor version of Keanu Reeves’s Ted. Every single moment he was on screen was like a rusty cheese grater on my soul.

In the end, ‘The ‘Burbs’ left me with exactly the impression that I expected from it back in 1989 and every time I saw its lame poster: it was okay, but not great. And it’s not good enough to really want to watch it again, either – despite starting off as a generally amusing diversion. That last 40 minutes really tanks the picture. It’s a damn shame, too, ’cause some of the funniest stuff is right in our own backyards.

Date of viewing: May 18, 2015

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