The Eighties Fever: ‘The ‘Burbs’ (1989)

What happens when you review thirty year old films from the perspective of someone who gets classified as a millennial, but wouldn’t really consider himself one? With both popular and obscure films on the list, it’s a mixture of new insights into old films, all while celebrating what might just be the greatest decade ever. This is The Eighties Fever.

Viewing: First Time

This movie was one in a DVD collection spotlighting the early works of Tom Hanks. My love of the eighties, and Hanks’ performance in Big made me seek out more of his earlier work. Really, only knowing Hanks as either Forrest Gump or the adult version of the kid in Big limits just how much other projects Hanks has been a part of. They weren’t all hits, and The ‘Burbs highlights this fact.

The ‘Burbs is a 1989 comedy thriller directed by Joe Dante (best known for directing Gremlins). It may not be as star heavy as The Dream Team was, but let me tell you, I was extremely pleased to see the late Carrie Fisher pop up on my screen however many minutes into the film. Of course, given how youthful Tom Hanks looked in the 80’s, the marriage between their two characters seemed a bit off, especially considering they have a ten-year old kid.  That’s just a minor point that is targeted more towards the actors themselves then the film.

The film itself is interesting. I never grew up in a suburban neighborhood so I can’t share the same experiences that screenwriter Dana Olsen had in writing this story. Apparently, he was inspired from his own childhood where he used to read the local paper and see stories on killer librarians, or hatchet murderers. But the idea of a neighborhood that isn’t what it seems to be, is a tried and true story troop of Hollywood.

So take The ‘Burbs for instance. New neighbors, the Klopeks, move into this derelict house that should have been shut down by the health committee years ago. They’re strange. They don’t come out during the day, there’s always a racket coming from the basement, and they dig holes in their backyard in the middle of the night. Something is up, and their neighbors are onto it. Ray Peterson (Hanks), Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), and Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) act as our main three leads of the story, investigating the mysterious lifestyle of their new neighbors. When another one of their neighbors, Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) goes missing unexpectedly, they are sure that their neighbors had something to do with it. Their proof? Walter’s toupee was left behind, and a man who uses a toupee never leaves home without it unless in the case of dire emergency.

What follows is a random act of sneaking into their house, rooting through their garbage, and even meeting this trio consisting of a doctor, an uncle, and their kid. Everything looks normal, no signs of suspicious behavior until Peterson finds Walter’s toupee in the house. How did it end up there when they left it in Walter’s house?

This insanity leads to them breaking into the Klopek’s house expecting to find the dead body of Walter Seznick. Out of some luck, the people who never leave their house during the daytime, leave their house during the day time, giving them this opportunity. Pure luck or convenient storytelling, I’ll let you decide. Now as is the case with these reviews, I don’t wish to spoil every aspect of the film so I’ll jump ahead and talk about a problem that plagued The Dream Team (another 1989 film with a random ending that didn’t sync with the characters’ motivations). So they find nothing, and the cops show up and Peterson is in an ambulance going to go to the hospital. All normal, at this stage I’m thinking “Hey, the moral of the story is, maybe you’re the weird psychotic neighbor.” And then Dr. Klopek tries to kill Peterson because guess what, he was right about them all along. And just like in The Dream Team, the Klopeks, who were trying to keep it on the down low about who they really are, steals the ambulance holding Peterson and tries to kill him with a needle. Thus insanity ensues, and the Klopeks go to jail instead. I’m not sure how the Klopek’s were to explain Peterson’s sudden death had they succeeded, but frankly I don’t care either.

I’m going to change gears now and talk about the acting. I’m pretty sure this was the first movie I’ve seen with Corey Feldman in it, and he does an okay job conveying the sort of teenager he was cast to play. I got some Fast Times Sean Penn vibes from him, and that’s not the worst thing to be compared too. It’s always fun seeing Tom Hanks in a more comedic role. Nowadays, we’re so used to seeing him in purely dramatic fare that we don’t really stop and remember that he started out in mostly comedies. The Money Pit, Dragnet, Big, Splash, all of them emphasized Hanks’ comedic timing. Whenever I get to see a more dramatic actor cut loose and have fun, especially for the first time, it always warrants some great results (Robert DeNiro in Meet the Parents for example). So, while this would technically be a reverse of that, watching a comedic actor who became more of a dramatic actor, but going back and watching some of his early comedy roles, you still get that same feeling of watching Hanks doing something new.

The late and great Carrie Fisher isn’t given much to do in this film unfortunately, but who cares, it’s just a joy to see her outside of a Star Wars production. Between this film and When Harry Met Sally…, Fisher has proven to me that she is more than capable of being remembered for something other than that one franchise.

Final Verdict: It’s not one of Tom Hanks better films, but if you are absolutely out of options of something to watch, and think “I want absurdity. I want insanity. I want something original.” then this is what to turn to. I’ll warn you, it does drag a bit in the middle, but thankfully picks back up near the end. This is definitely more towards The Money Pit than it is Big, but I won’t criticize the flaws too much since it is an original concept that was executed quite nicely. It’s not a cookie-cutter production; it’s its own thing. It doesn’t necessitate the need to watch it every six or so months, but if you pick it up again after a couple years, you’ll find something to enjoy.

Grade: 8.9/10

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