'burbs, TheReviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 07/10/02 22:42:09
Ah, that old chestnut, the 80's comedy. In the 80's movie comedy was in a state of flux. Belushi and the rest of the SNL crew were beginning to leave their crude and often irrestible mark on movies, changing the face of comedy for good. The rest of 80's comedy has almost been left as a footnote. The good survive as classics to this day (Ferris Buellers Day Off) while the bad are quite rightly forgotten (every single damn Police Academy movie). But this is a sadly under-rated little gem...'The 'burbs' was made back in the days when you would have been laughed at for even suggesting the name Tom Hanks in conjunction with an Oscar. He was known as simply a jobbing, rom-com type of actor. But this is one of his finest, yet forgotten, performances.
Hanks plays Ray Petersen, a regular surbanite in the type of street you'd want your kids to grow up in. Along with his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher), there's slobby Art Weingardner (Rick Ducommun. The 80's Jack Black), slightly unhinged Vietnam vet Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) with his unfeasibly young wife, Bonnie (Wendy Schall). Oh yeah and there's Corey Feldman's greatest ever role as the mullet haired teenager Ricky Butler.
All is pleasant in surburbia until new family the Klopek's move in next door to Ray and cause suspicion among the street by never being seen or making contact with anyone ("Klopek. Is that a Slavic name?" ruminates Ray). However this suspicion is intensified when the street busybody Walter disappears and the Klopek's are finally seen. Behaving strangely at night. And then the rumours start of what the Klopek's have previously been up to in previous homes. Which have all burned to the ground...
I first saw this when I was about 8 and it's been a firm favourite and a constant re-watcher ever since. Forget guilty pleasures, this is in my top ten, period. It plays exactly to the fantasy that maybe your street is more interesting than you think, that maybe your neighbours are murderers and that it's down to YOU to sort them out. Hanks epitomises this in a wonderfully subtle comic performance. He's a man who wants to take life easy, but due to pressure from his neighbours and his wife, is forced into situations he doesn't want to be in and constantly bears the weight of expectation on his shoulders as he reluctantly takes charge of events. The kind of guy who'll do anything for a easy life.
It's all there in Hanks' world weary face and posture as he forgoes his dream of a lazy week off, in favour of playing street detective. As Ricky Butler sums up, he's the kind of man who doesn't want anything wrong happening in his street, cos if there was he'd have to do something about it. The scene where they invite themselves in for tea at the Klopek's is a blissfully funny scene as the uptight and nervous Ray desperately tries to make nice ("sure was..damp today") while being force fed sardines. He also gets to show some of his more dramatic chops later on in his tirade against Art's constant snooping ("It's not them! IT'S US!").
And that brings us onto Ducommun. A seriously Z-list actor, this proves the rule that everyone has possibly one great performance in them (Prinze Jr, if you're listening, I said POSSIBLY). Art is the kind of guy you know that manages to get everyone else into the shit while remarkably staying stain free himself. It's a broad performance but suits the tone of the film perfectly and remains on the right side of caricature. He's the opposite to Ray, in that he belives right from the start that the Klopek's are bad news and wants Ray to sort it out ("Ray, you're chanting. I want to kill everyone, Satan is good, Satan is our pal...")
Dern makes up the central trio and is, like everyone else, awesome. He plays Rumsfield with a brilliantly manic edge (his combat clothing, his collection of weaponry) and a wonderfully wacked out terminology lifted straight from 'Nam ("In South-East Asia we call this kind of thing...bad karma..."). It's a great performance of the paranoid and ever so slightly dangerous. The rest of the cast fill their parts superbly and it feels like one of those casts where you like the characters so much, you want to be there with them. That's what worked for me as a kid and still does now.
So yes it's damn funny. Not classically funny like 'Some Like It Hot' say, or as memorably quotable as 'Airplane', but it's got its own charms. There's nothing new in the comic strokes used, but they're done with a fresh charm that never fails. Try saying any of these to a 'burbs fan and note their reaction:
"There go the Goddamn brownies!"
"Nobody knocks off a man in my neighbourhood and gets away with it"
"Man, that Ricky sure knows how to throw a party"
"It came with the frame..."
They don't look particularly funny wrote down, but when seen in the film work a treat.
Director Joe Dante also knows that for the situation and the tension to work he's got to counter-act the comedy with the right amount of horror. It's never going to give you nightmares, but it works superbly. The scenes where relates Art relates the tale of Skip, and when Ray is witness to a midnight burial in the thrashing rain manage to get the shivers going.
Ultimately, I think the thing that works most in 'The 'burbs' is the fact that it's never played too broadly and played for real, right up to the explosive climax. The scenes and action move naturally, and nothing seems forced or over -the-top.
Everything in it seems plausible from the sneaking suspicions, to the rifling through the garbage, to the digging up of the garden in a determination to find bodies. Dante captures the minutiae of everyday life perfectly. This is a film that loves its characters and is content to just hang out with them, shooting the breeze. Look at how Hanks refuses a huge breakfast from his wife, saying "I've got that...thing...with my stomach again". We don't know what that thing is, but we know instantly that this is something Ray has had to live with all his life. Just as Art invades their house to feast upon their breakfast and inadvertently takes a mouthful of dog muesli, it's a little touch, but a touch that adds so much everyday realism to the film. The characters are all spying on each other, and we spy on them.
For a studio film starring Hanks, who at the time was known for straight comedies and that's it, with a relatively commercial cast, 'The 'burbs' is surprisingly imaginative and dark. It's never too broad and finds the perfect tone with the material and cast. If there's ever two spare hours to kill, 'The 'burbs' is top of the list every time."What have you got in the cellar, Herr Klopek!"
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