Since the early 80s, Tom Hanks has been a hot commodity sought after for starring roles in movies. He has been in a countless string of hits ranging from 1984’s Splash to, recently, 2013’s Captain Phillips. Hanks broke out on the comedy scene with the 1980 television sitcom, “Bosom Buddies” (along with Peter Scolari), as two guys needing to find an affordable apartment, resorting to dressing in drag as they live in an all-women’s apartment building. Though it was hard to believe that the series lasted two seasons, one thing that had been evident was that Tom Hanks stood out as one hell of a funny actor, so it was a no-brainer to cast him into comedy films soon after the success of that show.
Although most of his films in the decade of the 1980s were hilarious romps that ranged from fantasy comedies (Splash and Big) to gratuitous lampoon (Bachelor Party and The Money Pit), one thing that was always evident was that the man could act and had quite a range from his great comedic timing to being quite serious. In fact, as time went on, Hanks began taking on more earnest roles, leaving the comedy behind. I was floored the first time I had seen Philadelphia, the movie having such a heavy tone as he played a gay man who contracts AIDS. The role won him his first Academy Award and definitely sent him on his way into being the great actor that he is today.
All that aside, the 80s were his comedic era and the films he had been featured in were fun frolics that were enjoyed by many. He had made a name for himself on his TV series, even garnering some attention on his guest role in Family Ties (where he played the uncle with a drinking problem) as his part was funny-turned-serious, and with his break-out hit, Splash, he was quickly on his way toward some really funny films.
So, the year after he was featured in Big and shortly after the release of Turner & Hooch, Tom Hanks continued his crazy comedy ways—although a little subdued here—in a fun little thriller-comedy, The ‘Burbs.
Now, I have to admit, I hadn’t gone to see this in theaters when it was first released in 1989, but opted to rent the film when it came out on VHS. So, focusing primarily on his outrageous comedies in the past, I was expecting this film to be sort of the same thing where it’d be a laugh-a-minute. With that in mind, I think that’s why I felt let down a bit after watching it back then and never really thought about it until recently, where I found the DVD for a couple of bucks in a dump bin at Wal-Mart. After re-watching the film as of late, I’ve found that I have changed my mind on my opinion from years ago and I’m actually partial to this movie.
One aspect I see in this film as to why I’ve changed my opinion is the fact that the whole film was shot on the backlot of Universal Studios, mainly on Colonial Street (now called Wisteria Lane, due to the success of the television series, “Desperate Housewives”), where well known TV shows were filmed. Shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Munsters” were just some of the many productions that were featured on that famous street set. I guess I’d just never noticed—or cared—when I first saw The ‘Burbs. But ever since 1998, when I first set foot in the Hollywood amusement park and the studio backlot tour, I found a new love for everything Universal.
But enough of me waxing poetic about the studio and everything associated with it…let’s get into The ‘Burbs.
The film takes place in a cul-de-sac neighborhood in the town of Hinkley Hills. Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) is curious about his mysterious new neighbors, the Klopeks, who live next door as he begins to notice some peculiarities that they display. Ray and his friend, Art (Rick Ducommun), and along with the military veteran neighbor, Lt. Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), start noticing weird goings-on at the house. They see flashes of lights coming from the basement and notice the neighbors coming out in the middle of the night to dig in their backyard. It’s when an older neighbor, Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon), goes missing, that the men decide to investigate…thinking the worst about the new neighbors.
I’ve got to say, I’ve gained a new admiration for this film and see it in a completely different light now. I made the mistake, back when I first saw this movie, of thinking it was going to be a big laugh riot with Tom Hanks leading the way. In actuality, this flick is a nice little funny story with an equally humorous ensemble cast that all give something to the movie. Mainly it’s a funny tale, with the typical farfetched plans of neighbors having nothing better to do than to trespass and spy on people who they believe to be murderers.
Although Hanks is not over-the-top funny, he still has some cool comedic moments as he plays the straight man that gets caught up and pressured by his friend to believe some crazy theories about the new neighbors. Seeing him go from just a curious neighbor to some obsessed meddler is pretty amusing and seems believable. The way it ramps up from the beginning makes it sort of acceptable that someone would actually go that far to find out what their neighbors are doing in their own home. Though he stays pretty straight throughout the whole movie, when he loses it before the climax of the film, you’ll most likely get a little chuckle out of it.
Although Rick Ducommun, as Hanks’s friend, is a little annoying, the film needed him as the little push to get Hanks’s character go over the top. But Bruce Dern was a nice touch to play the respectable military man of the neighborhood—not to mention his gizmos and gadgets help the plot along as it sees fit. Even though it’s a little overblown to have this story of three guys going out of their way to spy on the new neighbors, it gives the characters the air of great chemistry between them as they plan and strategize ways to gain information from the Klopeks’ residence.
Along for the ride are your typical icons from the 1980s, like Carrie Fisher playing Ray’s wife, Carol. You’ll recognize the Klopeks: Henry Gibson as Dr. Werner Klopek with Brother Theodore as Uncle Reuben and Courtney Gains as Hans. Of course, what’s an 80s movie without Corey Feldman? He’s thrown into the mix as the local teenager, Ricky Butler. Overall, the film has the same feel and look to it as Gremlins. Seeing that both that film and this one were both directed by Joe Dante, it's understandable.
If you’re a fan of the golden age of television, or even of more recent TV shows, you’ll definitely recognize the street the neighborhood is set on as it still appears like it had years prior. Although it has changed for more modern day television shows these days, it will always be Colonial Street to me, where the Cleaver boys walked home from school during the credits of “Leave it to Beaver.”
So, what’s my final “bit” on The ‘Burbs?
Not a Tom Hanks classic in any sense, but a very good film that’s pretty tame for the family to see. It’s entertaining and certainly worth a watch. I’m glad I picked it up and discovered my new found appreciation for it…maybe you will too.
Thanks for reading and have a Happy Halloween!