Sunday, October 30, 2016

The 'Burbs

Wow. I just realized this is the first Tom Hanks movie I've covered on this blog. I would have thought it would have been something like Saving Private Ryan or Forrest Gump.

Ray Peterson (Hanks) plans on a week-long vacation at home in his cozy little cul-de-sac. His wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) knows it's a bad idea, that he should really get away because his friends Art (Rick Ducommun), a fat busybody, and Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), an intense Army veteran, will rope him into their crazy schemes.

And she's right. Before long, at the prodding of the others, Ray becomes convinced there's something off about the new neighbors, the Klopeks. Their house is a dark and Gothic, the lawn is dead, and no one is ever seen coming or going from the house. But it's not like the Klopeks are a deranged family of murderers or goat-sacrificing Satanists or anything like that, right? Maybe they just want to keep to themselves.

I grew up on The 'Burbs (1989), a dark comedy directed by Joe Dante. It was a movie I was at one point able to quote almost in its entirety. I had two copies of it on VHS, one recorded off TV and the other on an official release. And it was on TV quite a bit. I loved the way it took shots at life in the suburbs and how weird and kooky all the characters were, especially the ostensibly normal ones.

Looking back on it with more adult eyes, it's not as sharp nor as dark as it could have been, but it has enough cult appeal to carry it through. Blue Velvet this is not. Neither is it American Beauty. It's less about exposing deep-seated rot or corruption of the good American life as it is pointing out the peculiar strangeness of the suburbs. For the most part, the comedy is low key, less about zingers and more about observations.

The film begins with the Universal Studios logo - i.e. the spinning globe - and zooms in on it until we're down on the ground level of the neighborhood where all the action will take place. The effect creates an otherworldly feeling, almost like we're being asked to observed the residents of a strange, distant planet: suburbia.

Everyone in the movie is worried about the rarely-seen Klopeks, not bothering to self-examine and realize how odd their own behavior is. Art walks through backyards with a rifle, taking potshots at crows that hit up his wife's bird feeder; Rumsfield acts like he's still in the Army, threatening to staple shut the ass of a dog that took a dump on his lawn (he's convinced the dog's owner Walter trained the dog to do so); and Ray only grows more unhinged as the movie continues and all the stress gets to him. If anything, the Klopek business is a wonderful distraction from how boring the neighborhood is; they're all going cuckoo in their own way.

Of course, cuckoo is a relative term. Making complete fools of themselves and getting into trouble is probably more accurate: getting swarmed by bees, falling off roofs, throwing garbage in the streets, breaking into houses. At times, it's practically slapstick and the violence borderline cartoony.

Admittedly, the Klopecks are kind of creepy and very weird. They're seen only night, digging in the backyard, even during a thunderstorm while wearing hooded robes, and their basement lights up with so much electricity, you'd think they were renting it out to Dr. Frankestein. When we finally meet them, they include the quietly sinister Dr. Klopeck (Henry Gibson), who's the most charming of the bunch; the gruff Uncle Rueben (Brother Theodore), who's always leering at Ray; and young Hans (Courtney Gains), who looks like he's never been in sunlight.

Dante includes his trademark touches. Robert Picardo and Dick Miller cameo as a couple of garbage men baffled by Art and Rumsfield's insistence to examine the Klopeks' garbage, and Dante throws in shoutouts to other horror movies with clips on TV, which leads to Ray suffering a bizarre nightmare that is both freaky and funny.

He also poke fun at some horror conventions. When Ray and Art knock on the Klopecks' door, the address marker gets knocked askew, switching from 669 to 666. As the two walk to the door, ominous music swells, and the camera cuts to closeups of the other cast members' faces looking intense and concerned, including Queenie, the insufferable little dog.

The cast is fun, especially Dern and Gibson. Also of note is Corey Feldman as the spacey teen who functions as the Greek Chorus, watching everyone else running around while he just sits back and enjoys it. What kind of Twilight Zone have we entered in which Corey Felman is more level-headed than Tom Hanks?

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