It is one of those films that when you find someone else who loves it, then you have a friend for life. They, not just studios but also everyone involved with the flick, just don't make them like this anymore and that is an absolute crushing shame but also makes this era, on which I have waxed rhapsodic before, a unique and special one in the history of quirky and cult cinema.
There was a time when Tom Hanks hadn't saved Private Ryan, hadn't got aids in Pennsylvania and where, if he'd worn a straight, mullet haired wig in a film it would've been a sublime moment of comic genius and not a colossal, laughable mistake of the costume department. There was a time when Tom Hanks seemingly only picked films if they were a little odd, a little curious and comically inclined. These include the highly underrated Volunteers, Dragnet and of course, his crowning achievement in cinema, The 'Burbs. Tom Hanks was, for one brief shining moment, the finest comic actor of his generation. We, those of us who love his old stuff and are often bemused by his new stuff, miss that Tom Hanks but maybe the reason he doesn't do stuff like that anymore is that stuff like that just isn't written anymore.
I have said many times on this blog about how, when I see a modern film in the cinema, I am often left feeling cold by the lack of recognisable or relatable characters in films these days and that the writing just isn't as good. Well there is no shortage of well played, well written, inventive, side-splittingly hilarious, nuanced and crazy characters in The 'Burbs that the, never bettered, ensemble cast mine for every last dollop of genius in their fantastic performances.
It is directed by Joe "Gremlins" Dante and is, without a doubt, his best film. His second best, as far as I'm concerned is Gremlins 2 which features a funnier and superior script to the first. He is a clever and mischievous director, throwing all sorts of lunacy up on the screen whilst never letting sight of the overall picture. He'd be hard pressed to loose his way considering the wonderfully tight and clever script.
Dante packs the screen with numerous nods to horror and thriller titles of the past like the name of the movie, a clever play on words of Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds', the look of the house which is reminiscent of the Bates Motel from Psycho, the lightening effects and purposefully shoddy wind effects which recall scenes from the Universal monster movies like Frankenstein and the score, surely one of the greatest ever composed and actually one of the films characters, which is one minute part Addams family part jolly sitcom and the next minute a spritely but sinister pipe organ as if played in some old black and white castle by a caped hunchback. Dante also has a lighter touch and is a superb director of cartoonish slapstick. This film features some truly hilarious and heroic pratfalls and set pieces, often featuring the, sadly now unappreciated and woefully underused, Rick Ducommun. As this was the blissful, happy days, prior to CGI, the effects in this film are all practical and gloriously old school. The same goes for the elaborate street set, which, perfectly in keeping with the throwback elements of this simple tale about the neighbours from hell, is both obviously a studio backlot and at the same time realistic and authentic enough that you can see yourself living there.
Back to the script for a moment. It is, when you really think about it, one of the most perfect scripts out there. It takes place in one setting, has the neat, tight and well thought out plotting and dialogue of a play and its genius lies in all the little subtle comic asides and mumbles that would easily be missed on a first viewing. An example of this is, if you don't remember that Tom Hanks' character, Ray, writes on his note to Walter 'I have your dog' then you don't get the joke at the end of the film where the police detective, when listing off Ray's charges, says that the 'old man claims you kidnapped his dog!'. What other modern comedy would trust the audience to be on-the-ball enough and wait 45 minutes to pay off a joke? That is obviously one of the definitely scripted ones but there are so many character moments and comments in this film that seem naturally improvised but may well also be just more genius scripting. Also, it is one of the most quotable American films happily standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of The Big Lebowski or Groundhog Day. Looking at his other credits, which are just terrible, it is hard to believe that Dana Olsen, the writer, came up with this but maybe this was his one good story and he just wrote the hell out of it or maybe it was saved by the extremely talented cast and crew. Unfortunately, seeing as this was prior to the days of 'making ofs' and commentaries we may never know.
Lastly, the cast, as you've probably gathered by now, I think, is tremendous. Bruce Dern, as the vietnam vet with the trophy wife but a further lust for excitement, relishes every ridiculous line and presents an eccentric but well intentioned lunatic who despite claims of being able to 'snap you neck in a heartbeat' also plays the character like a scolded child when Carrie Fisher as Mrs.Peterson stops them from seeing Ray (Tom Hanks).
Rick Ducommun, as the, probably, normally henpecked and portly Art Weingartner who, with his wife away, is gung ho to try any ludicrous scheme to uncover a mystery on his own doorstep, is fantastic and practically steals the show. It is a crime of modern cinema that, despite a bit part in Groundhog Day, we were denied more of his terrific comedy creations.
The three actors who play the suspicious, malevolent Klopeks (what is that? slavic?) are absolutely pitch perfect from the blank eyed naivety of Courtney Gains as Hans (a good Christian name!), through the creepy clipped stillness of the marvelously loopy Henry Gibson, to the bizarre aggression of the oddly named Brother Theodore as Reuben (bout a 9 on the tension scale there Rube!). If you ever want to be amazed by the weird paths people take to wind up in films then just look up Brother Theodore on Wikipedia, the man sure lived some life!
The only weak-link in the film, cast wise, would be Corey Feldman and not because his performance isn't good and enthusiastic, it is but because it does, unfortunately date the film and he's the only thing that does. His hair, wardrobe and Bill and Ted way of talking unfortunately does stick the film slap bang in a time zone at the end of the 80s.
I was having a discussion with a colleague of mine about The 'Burbs before I finished this review and was surprised that he didn't like it or seemingly had written it off as just another bad 80s comedy. That is of course fine, everyone is entitled to their opinion but in the course of our talk about the film, me defending it at all costs of course, I came to realise, again, what it is that I love about it is what I really miss from modern cinema. Modern cinema, even with its comedies, takes itself way too seriously and there isn't that quirky sense of adventure and the feeling that anything is possible. It's easy to write off films like The 'Burbs but, as I said in the beginning,it would never be green-lit now and if it was they would cast intentionally "funny" people rather than just the best actors for the job. Everything now is in such an obvious, easy to categorise (or should that be 'market') box, even low budget, independent films seem hopelessly similar and formulaic, the only film I can think of, in recent memory that has such an imagination is Dr. Parnassus, the last Terry Gilliam effort.
So getting a film like The 'Burbs down from the shelf, not only fills me with personal nostalgia (as I said, it was a frequent favourite with me and my friends growing up) but a nostalgia for days when films like Man With Two brains, Labyrinth and yes, what the hell, even Howard the Duck presented an unashamedly different, exciting, experimental, odd and off-beat type of film-making and a time when people didn't take everything so seriously.
10 out of 10 Roast beef hero sandwiches with au jus
Points from The Misses 8 out of 10 Roast beef hero sandwiches with au jus