Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"The 'burbs"

With the recent October Challenge now over, it's time to undertake a much more daunting challenge. With much trepidation I am now going to attempt the near impossible: I will do my best to convince a doubting and resistant public that the 1989 movie "The 'burbs" is a great film. If I could get even just one non-believer to change his/her ways and become a fan of the movie I'd consider this challenge a success. Scoff if you will, but please at least continue reading and give me a chance before you totally close your minds to the possibility.

"The 'burbs" stars Tom Hanks, at the height of his first career as a movie funny man--not too long before he abandoned comedy and became "Tom Hanks: Serious Actor and Oscar Nominee/Multiple Winner". Sure, he has dabbled in funny material occasionally over the past twenty years (most notably by voicing Woody in the "Toy Story" movies), but there really is a clear line (marked by his first Oscar turn in "Philadelphia" in 1993) between his two acting careers. I know it was a long time ago, but perhaps you remember the old Tom Hanks. He first gained a certain amount of fame by starring in the early 1980s sitcom "Bosom Buddies". He quickly turned his comedic timing and knack for physical comedy to the movies, starring in such seminal 1980s comedies as "Splash" (1984), "Bachelor Party" (1984), "Volunteers" (1985), "The Money Pit" (1986), "Dragnet" (1987) and "Big" (1988). After "The 'burbs" he continued in that same comedic vein with "Turner and Hooch" (1989) and then started off the 1990s with "Joe Versus the Volcano" (1990) (another underrated "odd" comedy like "The 'burbs"), "A League of Their Own" (1992) and "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993). I guess he showed enough "serious" acting chops in "Sleepless in Seattle" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities" (1990) to convince himself that this was the direction he wanted to go in. Winning the Best Actor Oscar for "Philadelphia" couldn't have hurt either.

Back to the movie. Co-starring with Tom in "The 'burbs" was an odd assortment of actors, some well-known and some unknown, who really came together to make a great cast: Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman, Henry Gibson, Gale Gordon and...Brother Theodore! Dick Miller even makes a great cameo appearance as a garbageman in one funny scene. "The 'burbs" was directed by Joe Dante, who had started his career working for uber-independent filmmaker Roger Corman. He is best known for such quirky horror and comedy movies as "The Howling" (1981), "Gremlins" (1984), "Explorers (1985), "Innerspace" (1987), "Gremlins 2: The Next Batch" (1990) and "Matinee" (1993). The music was done by Jerry Goldsmith, the composer of MANY great movie soundtracks, including: "Planet of the Apes" (1968), "Patton" (1970), "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970), "Chinatown" (1974), "Logan's Run" (1976), "Alien" (1979), as well as most of Joe Dante's movies, and many of the Star Trek movies and television shows. In "The 'burbs" he used a great combination of creepy, atmospheric horror-movie stuff intercut with some absolutely silly sounding comedy-movie music that fits the film perfectly.

For whatever reason, "The 'burbs" is such a quirky combination of comedy and horror elements that it wasn't able to find an audience when it was released (at least that's what I'm blaming). Even now, it doesn't really seem to even qualify as a "cult" movie--which would at least give it enough fans to be considered a success on some level. It seems like it simply appeared, disappeared and was forgotten about. Because of this everyone seems to think that it's a bad movie. I don't feel this is justified. There seem to be two camps that side up against "The 'burbs": those who have never seen it (or even heard of it for that matter) who have no interest in watching it now, and those who saw it when it came out and hated it (or at least disliked it). Either way, trying to convince someone to see the movie today seems to be tougher than trying to convince someone to join the Osama bin Laden fan club.

Believe it or not, I actually fall into the saw-it-when-it-came-out-and-didn't-like-it category. I was in the U.S. Army when it came out in 1989, stationed at Fort Knox, KY. There were two movie theaters on the post and, being a movie fan who didn't have much of a social life in his downtime (or a license for that matter), I tended to visit those theaters pretty often after the workday ended. Two theaters which offered one movie per week each didn't exactly offer a lot of variety. I remember walking the two miles or so to one if the theaters one day and seeing that "The 'burbs" was playing. My unit had just gotten back from spending the better part of a month training in the desert in Texas (Fort Bliss). I wasn't really up on the current movies and had not heard anything about "The 'burbs" (surprise, surprise). I did like Tom Hanks though and enjoyed seeing "Big" not too long before at the very same theater. Since I'd have to walk all the way back to the barracks with nothing to show for it if I didn't see the movie I was a captive audience. Whether I would have chosen to see "The 'burbs" at a megaplex which offerred all the rest of the movies out at that time I don't know. Not having much choice I paid for my ticket and saw it. I walked out of the theater after the movie thinking "What the hell was that?". Nearly everyone I know who saw the movie when it came out had the same reaction and never thought much about it again. I probably would have fallen into this category as well, except...like I said, I didn't have much of a social life.

The following week I found myself taking the long walk to the movie theater once again, having no idea what would be playing, but feeling in the mood to watch a movie. Wouldn't you know, they didn't get a new movie in the week since I had last visited. Yes, I stood in front of the theater staring at the marquee which said the the movie playing that evening would be "The 'burbs"! My first thought was to go back to the barracks and watch TV, but I was there and I would have had to walk all the way back with nothing to show for a wasted night. So...I bought another ticket and walked back in for what I was sure would be a boring re-watching of a bad movie. Then something strange happened: I loved it! It seems that the subject matter of "The 'burbs" is just kooky enough to require more than one viewing to really "get it". I believe that I even went back to the theater again later that same week to watch it for a third time.

Four or five months later I left the Army and returned home. One of the first things I did when I got back and was visiting with friends was to ask them if they had seen the movie "The 'burbs". Most of my friends had seen it (and didn't regard it too highly of course). When I asked them there must have been an excitement in my voice that indicated I loved the movie, because everyone seemed to cautiously indicate that they felt the movie was "okay". It didn't take much brainpower to realize that they were trying to shield me from the fact that they actually felt it was a total piece of crap. Luckily, they were willing to cave in to my pestering and watch the movie again on video. After a lot of pointing out just what I thought made it so funny they saw the light and were converted into believers! One friend who had not seen it watched it with me and (despite my constant pointing out of all the little details) loved it as well. You might be thinking that these people merely felt sorry for me and were just humoring me, but we've watched the movie together a number of times over the years and still quote it endlessly to this day, more than twenty years later.

I think the biggest problem with trying to show the movie to someone who's never seen it today is the simple fact that it's now over twenty years old. It's no longer a recent release ans does have an undeniable late-80s look and feel to it. However, I still think that the humor and spirit of the movie continue to shine through.

Here's the trailer for the movie:

The entire film takes place in a little suburban cul-de-sac called Mayfield Place. The main characters are all neighbors on this street. A new family, the Klopeks, has recently moved in, and no one can figure out what they're all about. They seem to have no interest in taking care of their lawn (a suburban no-no) and strange noises come from their dilapidated house at all hours. Tom Hanks plays Ray Peterson, who lives next door to the mysterious newcomers. Rick Ducommun and Bruce Dern play neighbors Art Weingartner and Mark Rumsfield. These three eventually come to the conclusion that the Klopeks are up to no good. Ray at first tries his best to be reasonable and deny that anything untoward is going on, but eventually the evidence piles up and there seems to be no other possibility. One of their other neighbors seems to have disappeared and the trio believe that he has been kidnapped (perhaps even murdered) by the Klopeks. They decide to break into the Klopek's house to find evidence while the family is gone for the day. Much action, drama and hilarity ensue as they try to prove that the foreigners are up to no good..

While I've loved "The 'burbs" for a long time, I do have to say that living in a small neighborhood myself has added to the fun of the movie. Whenever you find yourself talking about the eccentricities of your neighbors you are reminded of the comic situations of the movie. While it's definitely a comedy, there does seem to be a kernel of a caution story in it as well. You experience the strangeness of the new neighbors right along with the main characters. You can see the dangers of judging someone who's different from yourself. The clues build up and the accusations snowball until it gets to a point where something that would have seemed almost unfathomable at the beginning seems to be the only possible answer. Despite all the comedy, at the end almost everything is explained and the Klopeks seem to be innocent victims of a bunch of paranoid neighbors whose imaginations get the better of them. Ray finally sees the error of his actions and lashes out against Art with a speech about how wrong they were to jump to conclusions about the Klopeks:

"So they're different. So they keep to themselves. Can you blame them? They live next door to people who break into their house...and burn it down while they're gone for the day! Remember what you were saying about people in the 'burbs? People like Skip? People who mow their lawn for the 800th time and then snap? Well, that's us! It's not them. That's us. We're the ones who are vaulting over fences and peeking in through people's windows. We're the ones who are throwing garbage in the street and lighting fires! We're the ones who are acting suspicious and paranoid, Art. We're the lunatics! Us! It's not them! It's us."

The ending is actually a bit of a surprise. Are the Klopeks innocent victims or guilty monsters? You'll have to watch the movie to find out, but it makes for a fun ride if you're willing to go along with an open mind.

Here's one of the funniest scenes of the movie:

Once you "get" the humor of "The 'burbs" it starts to seem like a true masterpiece. Nearly every line in the movie is quotable. I find myself struggling to not speak practically every line aloud while watching it (people seem to find that annoying for whatever reason). Every character seems to have his or her place in the proceedings. Even someone as annoying as Corey Feldman is watchable in this movie (his character, Ricky Butler is supposed to be kind of annoying). It's tough for me to pick the best parts of the movie, but there are many hilarious scenes: when Ray, Art and Mark first spy on the Klopeks and see some odd behavior, when Ray and Mark drop in on the Klopeks for a visit with their wives, When the neighbors break into the missing man's house to see if they can find clues about what happened to him, when Art and Ray discover what they believe to be the femur bone of their missing neighbor in the Klopek's yard, when they undertake the mission to enter the Klopek's house to gather evidence against them... The fun all starts right away with the brilliant opening scene. The Universal logo that opens the movie turns into a tracking shot which zooms in from a view of the earth in outer space right down to the cul-de-sac and to a street-level view of the Klopek's house at night. From that moment on everything is all about the neighborhood vs. the Klopeks.

If anyone is willing to take a chance on this movie for the first (or second) time, it's available on DVD and can be watched in a number of places online. I'm willing to lend out my DVD to anyone interested, and am always happy to arrange a screening for friends. I promise to try my best to keep the live running commentary track to a minimum!

1 comment:

  1. Love this.

    As you well remember, my friend, it took me just a couple of watches through with you, to get converted to the pro-"the Burbs" camp.

    I love this post.

    And your memory, as always, just truly astounds me.