Laughing in the Neighborhood: The Enduring Appeal of The ‘Burbs

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Few actors have enjoyed the level of success that Tom Hanks has achieved over his 40-plus years in the industry. Particularly during the 1990s, nearly every film he starred in generated massive box office results and earned numerous Academy Awards. From 1992’s A League of Their Own to 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, everything Hanks touched seemed to turn to gold.

However, his star power has diminished somewhat over the last few decades, marked by a series of questionable choices – what was he doing in Pinocchio? Yet, it’s crucial not to forget that Hanks once stood tall as the indisputable king of Hollywood for over a decade.

Interestingly, his magnificent 90s run often overshadows his earlier work. Before becoming a capable dramatic actor, Hanks enjoyed a successful run in fun comedies like Splash, Big, Turner & Hooch, The Money Pit, and the classic Joe Versus the Volcano.

Still, the peak of this comedic run might have been Joe Dante’s 1989 film The ‘Burbs, a quirky comedy/thriller about a group of neighbors suspecting the new family on the block might be Satanic murderers. It’s the kind of high-brow concept that could only come from the 80s – a uniquely designed piece of cinema featuring a talented cast that perfectly plays their roles.

Released 35 years ago this month, The ‘Burbs didn’t make much noise in theaters, earning roughly $35 million against an $18M budget. A far cry from other Hanks hits like Splash ($62M), Dragnet ($57M), Big ($151M), and Turner & Hooch ($71M), yet considerably more than misfires like The Man With One Red Shoe ($8.6M), Volunteers ($19.8M), Every Time We Say Goodbye ($278K), and Punchline ($21M). Critics were mixed, with only 56% offering a positive review. Roger Ebert awarded the Dante production two stars and noted that “it lacks the dementia of [Beetlejuice] and the wicked intelligence of [The Twilight Zone] and turns instead into a long shaggy dog story.”

My love for The ‘Burbs is steeped too profoundly in nostalgia to notice such flaws. I recall my first viewing in a tiny theater during a raucous night with my cousins. Our massive 10-party group huddled in the empty auditorium, hooting and hollering at every line of dialogue. When we returned home, we reenacted the bit where Bruce Dern tackles Courtney “Pinocchio” Gains. My family has always been devout Hanks followers, and The ‘Burbs more or less cemented him in our pantheon of great actors. Of all the comedies I’ve watched, namely Dave, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Maverick, and Sneakers, The ‘Burbs might be the one I’ve seen the most.

No joke. I love this film and quote it often.

Yet, anytime I’ve attempted to show it to others outside my clan, the response is always muted at best. Embarrassingly, I put it on during a lengthy bus ride to Universal Studios for my fellow schoolmates to enjoy. When the film ended, I recall one of them shouting, “Enough of this ‘Burbs shit!”

I was shocked and more than a little horrified.

For me, everything in Dante’s classic clicks. From the bit where Hanks must chew on a sardine-covered pretzel to the moment when Dern’s character falls off a roof, The ‘Burbs makes me laugh during every viewing. (Thankfully, the wife likes it!)

Now, I’m well aware of the numerous endings Dante toyed with. The original ending saw Ray (Hanks) and his pals Mark (Dern) and Art (Rick Ducommun) arrested for messing with the mysterious Klopeks (Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, Courtney Gains), who wind up being little more than a bizarre family with no ulterior motives. Certainly, the movie is leading in that direction. While it aligns with the initial setup of suburban monotony, with people “mowing their lawns for the eight hundredth time” before losing their shit, the final revelation that depicts the Klopeks as deranged murderers is significantly more gratifying.

And terrifying.

My takeaway from the film is that danger might lurk right under our noses. That kindhearted man who greets you every day could, in fact, be a serial killer. How would you know? Talk about an eerie subtext, particularly for a lighthearted flick.

I love how everything in the movie is presented as routine. Even the garbage men, played by Dick Miller and Robert Picardo, carry out their tasks in a ho-hum manner. They only break out of their funk when Ray’s gang disrupts their routine. Ray, likewise, only evades a typical argument with his wife Carol (the beautiful Carrie Fisher) when his son alerts him that Mark and Art have dumped garbage all over the street.

In this world, these people will do anything to distract themselves from their boring lives.

Mark, an army vet, takes the opportunity to outfit himself in fatigues and play with an assortment of military-grade weapons and gadgets he likely stores in his basement. The Klopeks are a dream come true, a chance to ditch his flower garden to play the part of a soldier for a day or two. Art, a bored middle-aged man, has nothing better to do and imagines the Klopeks as Satan-worshiping demons, all to justify snooping around and eventually breaking into their house. It beats hunting crows with an air rifle.

Ray is more complicated. As explained by the airhead neighbor next door (Corey Feldman, in top form), he doesn’t want the responsibility of dealing with his neighbors and only resorts to action when presented with actual evidence of wrongdoing. Of course, he could call the police, but he chooses to go along with the charade probably to give himself a greater purpose to live for. In the original script, Ray loses his job before the movie starts, which explains his curious behavior. He’s a man striving to find meaning in his increasingly bland life spent watching Mr. Rogers and Jeopardy. (I wish they kept that detail in the final picture.)

By awarding these three bozos an actual resolution, The ‘Burbs seems to suggest we need to stay vigilant and active or risk losing everything we hold dear, even our mediocre existence. That’s more satisfying than punishing the lot for finally opening their eyes.

At any rate, the mere fact I can sit here and type out a lengthy article about The ‘Burbs speaks volumes about the film. To paraphrase a character during the climax: “This is no ordinary comedy.” The ‘Burbs takes risks and offers a solid blend of dark humor and slapstick wrapped in a social commentary about our very existence. Like most of Joe Dante’s work, notably classics such as Piranha, Gremlins, Innerspace, and Small Soldiers, The ‘Burbs is an acquired taste that may strike the right chord for most audiences.

Those who get the joke will enjoy a bizarre comedy experience that ranks among Tom Hanks’ best work. The man was tossing fastballs long before he won any Oscars, and The ‘Burbs displays his unique ability to turn even the most average Joe into a classic movie hero.

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