Film Review: The 'Burbs (1989)

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(source: tmdb.org)

Hollywood always had schizophrenic attitude towards suburbia. On one hand, suburbs were celebrated as the perfect embodiment of American Dream and something everyone in the world should strive for. On the other hand, the dark underbelly of the suburbs was fruitful source of inspiration for kitchen sink dramas, horrors and black comedies like The ‘Burbs, 1989 film directed by Joe Dante.

The plot takes place in typical middle class neighbourhood of Mayfield where the protagonist Ray Peterson (played by Tom Hanks) lives with his wife Carol (played by Carrie Fisher) and young son Dave (played by Cory Danzinger). He recently took a vacation and decides to spend it at home, which leaves him plenty of opportunity to hang out with his neighbours Art Weingartner (played by Rick Ducommun) and Mark Rumsfield (played by Bruce Dern). Their favourite pastime is commenting on the events in the neighbourhood, which has recently gained new inhabitants – Kloepks, sinister mysterious family of three that took residence in dilapidated house and never bothers to leave the house or contact their neighbours. Strange events during the night, which includes noisy machinery from Klopeks’ basement and they digging something in the backyard, stir Art’s and Mark’s imagination and they begin to speculate that they might be ritualistic killers or cult members. Ray is at first sceptical, but when their elderly neighbour Walter Selznick (played by Gale Gordon) mysteriously disappears, he decides to join their investigation, which would lead to all kinds of bizarre and uncomfortable situations.

The ‘Burbs had good box office results, but was greeted with lack of enthusiasm among the critics. The latter is somewhat surprising, considering the large number of notable names behind and in front of camera. Joe Dante enjoyed very good reputation as one of the few Hollywood directors able to reconcile horror and comedy. Young Tom Hanks as the film’s main star was considered to be one of top Hollywood’s comedians. Role of Ray was his first in which he played character with a family; he did it well, especially in the first part where he served as a straight man to the more manic characters of his friends. He is nevertheless overshadowed by relatively unknown Canadian comic Rick Ducommun as childish Art, as well as Bruce Dern who, in the role Vietnam War veteran trying to relive past military glory, tries to parody his character from Coming Home. The rest of the cast is also good although they often can’t do much with their roles. For example, Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore and Courtney Gaines barely appear as Klopeks, while Carrie Fisher’s character is absent for most of the second half. Wendy Schaal is good in thankless role of Mark’s trophy wife which likes to parade on her lawn in skimpy clothes. Corey Feldman is decent in the role of a teenager who serves as some sort of Greek chorus and comments the events, but his role is somewhat underwritten and seems to be introduced only in order to bring as much of commercially important teen audience to the theatres as possible.

Dante does solid job as director, aided by famous composer Jerry Goldsmith who has great fun with his score, using elements of Ennio Morricone’s work in Once Upon a Time in the West and his own work in Patton to great comical effect. Dante also puts backlot of Universal Studios to good use, shooting exactly the same streets and houses which had been used for popular 1950s television sitcoms set in conformist suburbia (and would later be used for more subversive television show Desperate Housewives). However, he couldn’t compensate for the deficiencies in the script. Its author Dana Olsen had good idea – to satirise conformism of suburbia turning its wannabe vigilantes into the same freaks that they tried their neighbourhood to protect from. It is, however, compromised by the rather predictable twist at the very end. Quality of humour decreases in the second half, many jokes become repetitive and Dante has to rely on too much action and special effects by Industrial Light and Magic. The ‘Burbs is still watchable and mostly entertaining film, but far from living to its full potential.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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