“Ricky Butler says they’re nocturnal feeders.”
Tom Hanks became pretty much the biggest actor in the world once he turned to dramatic roles, but I’ve always preferred him back when he was goofy. The ‘burbs represents the pinnacle of his goofy period for me, as collaborating with a great filmmaker in Joe Dante allowed him to craft a unique, outstanding performance that anchored a unique, outstanding horror comedy. In this movie he drinks a glass of orange juice better than anyone has ever drank a glass of orange juice on film. He traverses a set of stairs after being blown up more artistically than even Wile E. Coyote in his prime. He owns his character and the screen.
The ‘burbs tells the story of a sleepy, suburban cul-de-sac that gets disturbed when a new family moves in. You see; they’re a creepy group of three men. They never come out of their house. There are weird lights and smells coming out of their basement. Their name is Klopek. What is that, Slovek? Sure, we don’t know exactly what they’re doing down there, but it isn’t normal. At least when the Knapps lived there they mowed their lawn. So, all things considered, it’s up to Ray Peterson (Hanks) and his cadre of suburban sleuths to find out what’s going on, and what they’re keeping down in that cellar.
Why We Love It
This movie is the best kind of comedy. It introduces a crew of diverse characters with big personalities and then it just sits back and watches them chafe against each other. Humor is inherent in human nature and everyday interaction, if you can write a script good enough to harness that without needing to rely on setups and gags then you’ve hit on something primal and satisfying. And once you’ve accomplished that, once you have your audience on the hook, then you can throw in a stupid gag and have everyone love you for it anyways. At one point two characters find a human bone and then scream at the top of their lungs as the camera zooms in and out on their faces. You don’t get that kind of wackiness everyday, and you welcome it even less frequently. Here I embrace it and give it a wet kiss. The ‘burbs creates characters so likable that repeat viewings become necessity. You can annoy any number of loved ones by making them watch this with you while you quote everything as it happens and laugh at jokes before the punch line.
How many watches does it take to notice that when Art is breaking into the Klopek’s basement he randomly finds a comb in the dirt, checks it’s bristles, and sticks it in his pocket? Genius.
In the first three scenes we get an introduction for every character. We instantly understand who they all are, and why they will be funny. Hearing a disturbance, Ray Peterson comes out of his house in the middle of the night to check on things in his PJs. He’s not so much vigilant as he is nosy. The next morning we get Corey Feldman blasting Circus of Power’s “War Machine” and playing air guitar on his front porch. His neighbor Mr. Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) comes out of his house half dressed and raises an American flag in his front yard. Corey Feldman is playing Ricky Butler, the street’s young punk. Dern’s Rumsfield is a veteran, the kind who could never let go of his life in the army because it was so much more fulfilling than suburban malaise. In the third scene, Ray’s morning routine is interrupted by his glutinous, loudmouth neighbor Art (Rick Ducommun). While Ray is suspicious about what is going on next door, Art is certain that the Klopeks are fiends. He tells us as much as he raids his neighbor’s fridge for left over spare ribs, a bottle of maple syrup, and a pineapple. Strap in, these idiots have some vigilante work to do.
Everyone spies on everybody else in the suburbs. It’s like they’re constantly making sure their neighbors are living lives as empty and mundane as their own. If somebody actually had something interesting going on it could ruin the whole system of suburban life. That’s why the Klopeks are such a threat. The three actors who play them are amazing in their roles. Henry Gibson plays diminutive, mild-mannered creepiness better than anyone else. Brother Theodore is hilariously gruff, and has amazing chemistry with Hanks. And Courtney Gains, well he looks like a European Napoleon Dynamite who’s never had a bath.
They stand out.
But what if they were just a weird family from a different country? In the city they probably wouldn’t even be noticed, but in the suburbs they’re instantly labeled killers. Don’t have a lawn as green as your neighbor, or a furnace as efficient? You could be cut off from the rest of suburban society before you know what happened. In addition to the surface level comedy going on, The ‘burbs also works as allegory for the secrets that lie under the homogenous, pleasant veneer of suburban life. It comments on public and private spaces. It looks at what fences and lawns do to us as human beings.
But all of that stuff is just icing on the cake. The cake is that the comedy rules. One classic comedic trope that always works with me is to present children as adults or adults as children. This movie is chock full of men acting like little boys. Ray and his friends are all bluster and stubbornness. They’re all cowards, they’re all lazy, and they’re all afraid of their wives. But they don’t know I know that. Any time you’re able to effectively expose immaturity in authority figures you can create a catharsis of laughter for your viewer. The ‘burbs skewers all of our fathers and reveals them as the frightened children they are. It makes you laugh, and it gives you the opportunity to think, but it doesn’t demand that you do. It’s the perfect thing to put on when you’re lazing about on a Sunday afternoon.
Moment We Fell In Love
The beginning of the third act. After learning that the Klopeks are going to be gone for an entire day, Ray, Art, and Mr. Rumsfield decide to break into their house, dig up their back yard, and find out where they’re keeping all of the people they kill, once and for all. Ricky Butler puts out emergency calls to all of his friends and the pizza dude. This day is going to be one to remember, and he doesn’t want anyone to miss a moment of it. At this point you’re so in love with the characters that you’re ready to follow them into any ridiculous situation. You realize that you’re already fulfilled by everything the movie has given you, but that the best is yet to come. When the Klopeks pull out of their driveway and Ray and the gang prepare to cut the electricity to their alarm system, The ‘burbs goes from being a fun comedy to being completely next level. After you’ve seen this movie five or ten times you find that you fall in love with it all over again at a different spot each time. But for that first viewing, this is the moment.
“A man’s furnace is his own business.”