The ‘Burbs (1989) – A Review
On a quiet suburban street a sleepy neighborhood suddenly gets a jolt of excitement thanks to the new, very strange neighbors that have moved in. Their odd behavior and bizarre occurrences surrounding them has turned everyone suspicious, tense and gradually convinced that these new neighbors are killing and disposing of bodies in their basement.
That’s pretty much the story of The ‘Burbs. It’s not really all that fancy or gets any more complicated than that. It’s something along the lines to a twisted Twilight Zone episode. Almost like The classic ‘The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street’, only this time the paranoia and uproar that rains down on this neighborhood is mined for comedy and extended to feature film length.
There’s really nothing majorly wrong with The ‘Burbs, but I never liked it as much as I hoped to. It has a fun eclectic cast, some amusing bits, but I never felt it sustains itself and offers enough funny stuff throughout.
There are sections of the film that slow down and the antics the neighbors get into become plodding without any twists, turns or surprises. Even with the cast giving their all and Joe Dante’s offbeat perspective from behind the camera helping to tell this odd little tale, The ‘Burbs ends up much more routine than unique as it should’ve been.
Tom Hanks is enjoying a stay-at-home vacation. Not much happens on this street other than watching a poodle poop on Bruce Dern’s lawn. That is until Hanks’ pal Rick Ducommun raises suspicion about these new bizarre neighbors that have moved in.
They are never seen, they spend nights digging in their backyard and there’s some very strange noises coming from their basement. Add on a very unusual way these folks take out their trash, Hanks’ dog digging up a large bone AND the sudden disappearance of one older neighbor!
This is all plenty to allow Hanks, Dern and Ducommun to envision human sacrifices taking place across the street. Despite wives Carrie Fisher and Wendy Schaal trying to reason with the trio, the three form a plan to discover just what exactly is going on with their new neighbors.
The ‘Burbs has some very fun moments, but not enough comedy is mined from this escalating premise to make it a film that I continually return to. It has some good stuff, but doesn’t come together for me as a real satisfying comedy.
The cast are all good and really squeeze as much mileage out this paranoia tale as they can. They’re really the biggest asset the movie has. Ducommun is a hammy comedic foil whipping up conspiracy theories, Fisher is the voice of reason, Schaal is perky and adorable looking in her bright suburban attire.
Dern is an abrasive veteran who chews up his dialogue with great intensity. His ultra serious, angry suburbanite is a real kick to watch and gets most of the laughs for me. I actually think Dern is funnier than Ducommun in the film.
Once again Hanks shows his talents at playing comedy and he goes all in on this suburban nightmare being the ‘everyman’ who leaps down a rabbit hole of obsession and irrational behavior. Despite listening to reason, Hanks gets increasingly paranoid of what is going on in his neighborhood. Bizarre dream sequences, breaking into houses, digging up yards, he becomes possessed to find out the true story of these wacky neighbors.
Whenever I watch Hanks’ earlier comedic roles it always make me wish he would take a break from his more heavy, dramatic performances today and do another comedy. He was such a natural and so enjoyable to watch in comedies.
The Klopek clan are an amusing trio of residents. Cranky looking Uncle Reuben, wolf boy looking Hans and Dr. Klopek (Brother Theodore, Courtney Gains and Henry Gibson). These guys look like they were pulled out of an old Munsters episode. But we don’t get to spend much time with them. Other than a friendly visit inside their house they mostly remain a distant presence throughout the film.
I always thought Corey Feldman was an odd addition to the cast. I suspect they wanted to try to have someone they could market the movie to younger audiences with, so they worked Feldman in as sort of a Gen-Xer Greek chorus on this street. I always thought they could have nixed him and used a more quirky, humorous neighbor in his place. He always seemed out of place in this.
They do manage some suspense and intrigue amongst the comedy. Dante is quite adapt at marrying the two quite well. His fun camerawork, exaggerated shots, film homages and references dot the film.
One fun quirky part I always liked is how the film opens with the famous Universal globe logo and the camera begins to zoom in on the spinning earth all the way down to Mayfield Place, the quiet street where the entire film takes place at. I always enjoy when movies do something interesting with the studio logo at the start of the movie.
The ‘Burbs becomes an episodic series of events that are meant to build to a climax. Yet, neither the climax nor the road getting there are jam-packed with laughs.
You might view it as a slow burn movie. The fuse is lit, tension starts building up, comedic mishaps occur and we’re counting down to the climax when Hanks and his crew really start going off the deep end with their plan of breaking into the house and finding evidence of the Klopek’s crimes. It is then we’ll finally learn whether the neighbors are right that the Klopek’s are murderers or have they embarrassingly misjudged this innocent family’s eccentricities.
There’s some amusing awkward moments (such as a neighborly visit to the Klopeks to give them some brownies), reaction shots and exchanges between the characters, but the comedy doesn’t really take off the way I had hoped. Most of it is mild humor and not knee-slapping for my taste.
That’s how I’ve always felt about The ‘Burbs since first seeing it. As years have passed The ‘Burbs has gained a cult following and it appears it has more fans today than back in 1989. I can’t say the years have changed my opinion on it and I can herald it as a ‘an underrated gem’. Maybe its mileage will vary with others.
I still consider it an ‘ok comedy’, and it’s fine if I stumble across it on a lazy Saturday afternoon.