Film: The ‘Burbs (1989)
Written by: Larry Brezner and Michael Finnell
Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Tom Hanks as Ray Peterson
Bruce Dern as Mark Rumsfield
Carrie Fisher as Carol Peterson
Corey Feldman as Ricky Butler
Pre-screening memories: When I was a kid, I think I felt obligated to like The ‘Burbs. One of my favorite movies as a young lad was definitely Big, although that was mostly for the sweet apartment he had in Manhattan with the basketball hoop, soda machine, and huge trampoline. But Tom Hanks still served as that movie’s icon and got to live out every young boy’s fantasy by trying out toys for a living, getting to have a Pepsi whenever he wanted, and feeling a boob with the lights on.
I remember hoping he’d do more awesome stuff like that in The ‘Burbs, but what I got instead was one creepy, weird-ass, maddeningly uneven jaunt through the anarchic imagination of Joe Dante.
Parts of it were still childishly funny to 9 year old me, like when Tom Hanks runs face first into the screen door and angrily crushes the beer cans or Rick Ducommon getting hit by a pickax flying over the fence, but I vividly remember being more than mildly freaked out by the unshaven Hans, the ghoulish-looking Reuben, and bizarre scene of Tom Hanks looking out his bedroom window to see the three shadowy Klopeks next door digging what appears to be graves in the pouring rain.
This was a dark movie. And having grown up in the suburbs, I had a decidedly rosier perception of life in a seemingly idyllic hamlet on the outskirts of town, but here was Rick Ducommon talking about the local ice cream man losing his mind due to suburban monotony-turned-madness and butchering his entire family. As a third grader, what the hell am I supposed to do with that? This was supposed to be a Tom Hanks movie, dammit!
New memories: This movie is still dark, but compared to some of the really dark comedies I’ve seen and enjoyed since (the borderline-evil Death to Smoochy comes to mind), The ‘Burbs comes off as mostly tame. It strikes me more as a live action satirical comic book than anything else. The plot moves along briskly, macabre situations contrast against the bright, picturesque background and perfect weather of suburban tranquility, and we’re treated to some genuine laugh out loud moments along the way.
Special mention must go to Bruce Dern and Corey Feldman who give my favorite performances here. Bruce Dern has the funniest lines delivered with a brusque, confrontational assertiveness all ex-military guys have. He doesn’t have time for your crap and let’s you know as much. When nosy neighbor Ricky (Feldman) asks him what he’s doing on the roof, Dern responds gruffly, “Shut up and paint your goddamn house.”
Feldman as Ricky almost serves as Dern’s counterpoint. He’s the surrogate for the audience to experience the action. At one point, he narrates the story of his street and all its players to a date, and at another invites friends over to watch the proceedings. He and his friends applaud, cheer, and “call the pizza dude” as Ricky’s neighbors go completely insane acting. Ricky and his friends serve as a Greek chorus to the action, or perhaps more appropriately, as a less sardonic Crow, Servo, and Mike.
The ‘Burbs is still an unusual movie, but expecting anything less from certified weird dude Joe Dante would be foolish. As an adult, I think that’s what I like about it best. Sure it’s uneven and the “suburbanites are repressed lunatics” theme is hideously tired in 2009, but it’s got a vivacity and anarchic spirit missing from a lot of today’s offerings. It’s weird. It’s fun. It knows it’s a movie. It’s not Shakespeare. But it is a great freaking time.
Download Natsukashi’s ‘The ‘Burbs” with Peter Kuran podcast right here
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Our Featured Guest: Peter Kuran
At the tender age of 17, while most kids are contemplating colleges, struggling to find out just what the hell they want to do with the rest of their lives, Peter (pictured far left, next to that robot guy) decided he would kick it with some new friends on a little movie “made from the guy who made American Graffiti. ”
Yes, before he was old enough to vote, Peter was hustling around the set of Star Wars as part of the Industrial Light and Magic crew. That endeavor obviously left an impression on his young mind, and kick-started a career in film that reads like a fantasy film geek’s fever dream: The Thing, Conan the Barbarian, RoboCop, BeetleJuice, Critters 2, Gremlins 2, Ghostbusters 2,Edward Scissorhands are but a few of his more than 250 films.
In 1982, he founded VCE Entertainment, which went on to provide effects work for numerous mainstream features, ranging from X-Men 2 and Men in Black to Thirteen Days and The Last Samurai, ultimately earning an Academy Award.
Kuran has also produced and directed five award-winning documentaries on Atomic testing, history and weaponry.