The ‘Burbs

Who has moved into 669 Mayfield Place?  For an entire month, nobody knows.  No one in this non-descript neighbourhood has seen anybody coming and going from the residence at all.  And what’s with that weird noise coming from the basement?

The lack of certainty arouses deep curiosity amongst the residents, especially Tom Hanks who is awakened in the middle of the night by that mysterious humming.  He gets as far as his next door neighbour’s lawn before giving up and going back to bed.

So begins Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs, a weird, misguided comedy that also fails as a half-hearted thriller.  It’s been nearly 30 years since I first saw it during its theatrical run.  It has not aged particularly well.

Part of the problem is that the film has exactly one laugh.  The other part of the problem involves its main characters.  They’re unsympathetic busybodies fueled by unwarranted paranoia and overwrought suspicion, that is until the movie cops out in the worst possible way.  Rick Ducommun is especially annoying as the overbearing budinski who frequently imposes his large presence on Hanks.  There’s one scene where he walks in uninvited during a family breakfast and starts eating a lot of their food.  He’s rarely at a loss for words.  He is not funny at all.

Hanks is having a staycation (he refuses to go to the family cottage) and when he’s not lounging around doing nothing important, annoying wife Carrie Fisher in the process, he’s stupidly listening to Ducommun who is absolutely convinced with zero evidence that his new next-door neighbours are up to no good.  Another neighbour, Bruce Dern, an army vet with an American flagpole on his property and a much younger wife (Wendy Schaal), is just as obsessed as they are.

When the neighbourhood crank (Gale Gordon), whose poodle keeps crapping on Dern’s lawn, suddenly disappears, instead of being relieved that the old bastard is gone, the clueless amateur sleuths sense foul play, pointing fingers at the enigmatic neighbours.  At one point, they actually break into the old man’s house where Dern’s wife discovers his discarded toupee.  Hanks looks after his shit-happy dog and leaves a note behind that is bizarrely misinterpreted later on as a threat.

Initially too afraid to actually meet the new neighbours, Hanks and Ducommun only get as far as their rickety front porch.  The wood is falling apart and for some reason they encounter bees, a sure sign of comic mediocrity.  (A similar bit pops up in Daddy Day Care, a far worse disaster.)

It isn’t until Fisher suggests they properly introduce themselves about halfway through the movie that we finally hear from the three men who live there.  Henry Gibson, a doctor who paints to relax, sounds like a Nazi.  Brother Theodore, his brother, mostly glares without blinking.  And Courtney Gains looks like The Wolf Man in mid-transition.  (There’s a scene where Gains drives the family car from the garage to the sidewalk just to stuff a bag of garbage in a can.  Our desperate heroes, quietly observing across the street, think there’s a body inside.  They are not correct.)

The get-together is, as expected, extremely awkward.  (When Gibson offers his hand to Hanks when they first meet, it appears to be covered in blood.  It turns out to be paint.)  The new neighbours are understandably uneasy.  Their overly nosy visitors struggle to make small talk when they’re not asking pointed questions.  In between, there are long stretches of uncomfortable silence.  Just in case you thought the bee gag was too highbrow, Hanks eats a raw sardine on a pretzel as the foley artists needlessly amplify the juiciness.  Moments later, while pretending to sneeze, he spits it out in a newspaper.  Subtle.

While in their bathroom, he makes a startling discovery:  the missing neighbour’s toupee along with his subscription magazines.  One question would clear up that mystery.  It’s never asked.

There’s more.  One night, Hanks looks out his window to see the three men digging in their backyard.  (Makeshift graves?)   One afternoon, his dog, Vince, finds a bone.  (Is it human?)  With Ducommun’s story about a murderous soda jerk still ringing in his ears, Hanks sends his wife and son away so he can be part of something incredibly stupid, an illegal break-and-enter mission to find any evidence of their missing neighbour.  (Shouldn’t the police handle this, fellas?)  As always, Corey Feldman, another local resident, continually watches from his front porch with bemusement.  He claims this is “better than TV”.  He’s not very bright.

Once in the basement, Hanks starts foolishly digging in the dirt.  He should’ve just looked in the furnace.

As the felonies pile up, it all appears to be a big, tragic misunderstanding.  But then, something happens in the back of an ambulance that defies logic.  One character makes an unnecessary confession to another.  Why would you do this?  Why reveal this to an idiot who didn’t actually find anything incriminating on your property and may actually go to prison for a while?  Besides, how do you expect to flee without detection, even if you do succeed in killing him?

Joe Dante has made better films than this.  The Howling is good.  Matinee is great.  The ‘Burbs, on the other hand, is his worst effort to date.  The movie knows that the weird neighbours have to be guilty of something, otherwise Hanks, Ducommun and Dern will look like complete jerks for needlessly harassing them.  Actually, they look like jerks period for profiling their low-key neighbours in the first place.  Almost everything they believe about them comes not from solid evidence but from their own feverish, discredited imaginations.  No, they’re not Satanists.  No, they’re not cannibals.  No, they didn’t kill the cranky neighbour.  No, they didn’t stuff a body in the garbage.

The bogus “twist” at the end, a fortuitous fluke, is somehow supposed to justify all these false accusations and save our “heroes” from serious legal jeopardy.  But it’s an unjust reward for needless, unwarranted privacy violations.  We don’t like it when the police do this in real life, so how can we justify it in a terrible movie?

Because the neighbours aren’t very scary or compelling to begin with, just unusual and socially awkward, the last-minute reveal lands with an unconvincing thud and feels hypocritical, especially after all these contrived, false-alarm coincidences.  (Maybe irony and satirical role reversal would’ve helped the film’s comic tone which is astonishingly weak.)  It also exposes another glaring weakness.  The villains are dumb, too.  If you were expecting to get away with your own felonies, why would you leave all that evidence in the trunk of your car?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, June 17, 2017
7:32 p.m.

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Published in: on June 17, 2017 at 7:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

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