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The Drunk Monkeys Film Club: The 'Burbs (1989)

Rick Ducommun and some guy named Tom Hanks, who was never heard from again (Image  ©  Universal Pictures). 

Rick Ducommun and some guy named Tom Hanks, who was never heard from again (Image © Universal Pictures). 

When people with money give that money to someone like filmmaker Joe Dante (Gremlins), and apparently tell him that he can do whatever he wants with it, the results can be weird. The fact that Gremlins 2 is phenomenally different from the first movie is a good example of that theory. The ‘Burbs is another case-in-point. Although the movie went on to win back its budget and then some, it received mixed reviews from critics and everyone else who saw it. Dark comedies with a mildly surreal, cartoonish tone running through them tend to be met with confusion from the general public. If you compare The ‘Burbs to most of the movies that came out in 1989, you can see where the confusion comes from. There really wasn’t anything quite like it when it came out, and there really aren’t a lot of movies like it now.

It makes a lot of sense that Joe Dante has a deep affection for Looney Tunes. His sensibilities as a director work well with Dana Olsen’s scathing, satirical screenplay on life in hopelessly self-absorbed suburban communities. Each of these small communities function as small empires of voyeuristic entertainment, social function, and political intrigue. These communities are still all across the United States, a fact which gives Dante’s visual touches and Dana Olsen’s script an element of relatability that makes The ‘Burbs relatable twenty-six years later.

All of that aside, The ‘Burbs is funny. It features one of the greatest insane Bruce Dern performances of all time, from a career that is filled with playing men whose grip on reality is a more of a wave to it from a great distance. Carrie Fisher is also awesome, proving that she could indeed do much more than play Princess Leia. If the mere sight of Corey Feldman fills with you a sense of dread, don’t worry, because he’s not in this movie a whole lot. You should also watch this, and then look up Henry Gibson, one of the most undervalued character actors that I can think of.

The ‘Burbs also has Tom Hanks in a great performance, right at the cusp of moving from box office star to Hollywood royalty. Hanks is often known for playing certain types of characters, or for being so recognizable, we can’t shake him from the characters he tries to play. He has moved away from this a little over the past couple of decades. During the time of The ‘Burbs’ release, people had a very particular idea of the kinds of movies they wanted to see him in. This wasn’t really one of those movies, although the mere presence of Hanks in the film is probably why it did so well commercially. When you can separate his reputation and instant recognition factor from what he tries to accomplish as an actor, you can be pleased with the results more often than not. You will probably realize that he is one of the most versatile actors of our time. His work here is designed to move with the tone and overall style of the movie, and not to turn it into a Tom Hanks vehicle. His timing and reactions are flawless within the context of all the strange things going on in the film. He is a chameleon in that sense, yet still manages to turn on the charms and other particulars that make him a true, textbook definition of a movie star. This is something that is proven over and over again. Have you ever wondered why he gets asked back to Saturday Night Live so many times? I don’t.

Besides the beautiful pot shots taken at American suburban life, the greatest part about The ‘Burbs is its unpredictability. I liked the movie as a kid because I had no idea what would happen next. I still feel like that when I watch it now. Dante and Olsen make The ‘Burbs work because they set things in reality, and then play fast and loose with the rules of reality from there. Not so much as to make the movie something we can’t understand, but just enough to where we are completely comfortable with the footing given to us. Just go with it, because you’ll have a much better time that way. 

Join the Drunk Monkeys Film Department for our live tweet of The 'Burbs on Friday, June 26th! Follow along via the hashtag #dmmovies