Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Once Upon a Time in The Burbs

Joe Dante has a way of placing his movies in a world that exists just outside reality. Dante's worlds are like our memories of past decades where only the good moments remain, and their shortcomings are just a little too hazy to recall. Gremlins is in a quaint winter town -- soon to be invaded by devlish creatures. Explorers exists in the childhood realm where everything is possible -- even spaceflight. Even Gremlins 2, which is designed to look like today's corporate landscaped is just slightly twisted because the movie Gremlins exists in this world -- but so do the characters who were in that 'movie.' The Dante door I would choose leads to the street where Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Rick Ducommun, Carrie Fisher, Corey Feldman and (occasionally) Dick Miller all live. Watching The 'burbs for the first time in probably a decade, the outlandish expectations my memories heaped on it were fully met, reaffirming my long-held thinking that it is one of the most well-crafted comedies ever made.

The movies that stay in our memories longest are the ones with the least to remember -- that is, the simplest of stories. The 'burbs is wonderfully simple: three neighbors in the dog days of summer trying to convince themselves that the streets newest inhabitants are up to no good. But there's hardly ever any sense of dread surrounding the characters, because they WANT to find trouble, because the other option is going back to their everyday routine. The true genius of The 'burbs, though, is that it walks the sometimes impossible line between camp and horror, while carrying an overflowing fishbowl of funny. Too much one way or the other, and it doesn't work -- even when we think it's going to topple over into true camp and throw away any horror intentions, Dante balances the delicate load. In the midst of this beautiful genre amalgam is quick but steady pacing and a script that holds its cards close to the vest until the final act.

Unlike many of his other movies, The 'burbs contains next to zero pop culture references -- allowing it to age seamlessly. In fact, the most prolific pop culture references made in the movie lie in its genre winks: a nod to Rio Bravo here, a glance toward Sergio Leone there, and most prominently, a tribute to the The Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street. Dante obviously was a Twilight Zone fan after lending his talent to the 80s revival of the series as well as the Twilight Zone movie, and The 'burbs' theme of suburban boredom-cum-paranoia is a clever takeoff on one of the series' best episodes. Inside this classic framework is The Street: the small strip of a neighborhood in Anytown, U.S.A. that serves as the lone setpiece.

Since there's never a moment when our characters are outside of The Street, The 'burbs has a way of drawing the viewer in and making them feel at home with the cast. We gain a gradual familiarity with this area, which is the quintessential suburban utopia of green lawns, open doors and friendly neighbors. My feelings have always been like Feldman's character, who says multiple times: 'God, I love this street!' In this way, The 'burbs resembles many Westerns, most notably Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. Hawks' masterpiece essentially gave us one stretch of a dirt town and a few buildings ... and it was more than enough to hold the gigantic movie happening within its walls. The real nod to Rio Bravo, though, is in our core characters -- played by Hanks, Ducommun and Dern. In Hawks' Western, the trio of John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Dean Martin all functioned as one unit throughout the film, with each having a distinct skill set but one ultimate goal. Wayne was the unquestioned main character and star of the bunch, but the script never forces him to carry the story. Much is the same with Hanks, who appears by himself on the one-sheet but never goes too long on screen without either of his sidekicks nearby.

This last aspect is what puts The 'burbs on another level. The three leads all have different comedy styles, and none of them get the spotlight to themselves for long. The script perfectly caters to each of their skills as well: we get Hanks' annoyed house husband ('I've been blown up, take me to the hospital'), Ducommun's pestering stand-up skit that served him well in his brief moment of comedy fame ('Now they know that we know that they know that we know') and Dern's patented hard-ass humor ('Smells like they're cooking a goddamned cat in there'). All three are in their natural elements and are allowed to play off each other, never once feeling like they're passing the mic off to one another.

But the laughs are hardly limited to the big three. Like all Dante pictures, we are treated to a visit from Miller (an original that guy), this time in the guise of a garbage man. Dante wisely drops Miller into the scene that is perhaps the film's comedy centerpiece: starting with oddball touches of two garbage men picking apart the fabric of society with one curiously sporting a rainbow patch (never explained), moving on to a half-shaven Dern and insanely driven Ducommun rifling through the trash and ending with my favorite line of the movie:

Miller: 'Who's going to pick up all this garbage?'
Dern: 'Well you're going to pick it up, because you're -- the garbage man!'

It doesn't hurt that there's not one weak link in the tidy cast. In addition to the aforementioned, Dante also serves up Henry Gibson, Gale Gordon (best known as Mr. Wilson) and even a cameo from Nicky Katt as the 'lame-o in the yard' (Katt is best known as Mr. 'Isaac Fucking Newton' in 'Dazed and Confused'). Given a long leash on his infrequently-seen comedic skills, Dern lets loose and becomes the rascally crazy middle-aged man he was born to play. Hanks is also in a natural role as the lazy, indifferent and skittish Ray Peterson, but smartly reins in his sometimes dominating presence as the lead funnyman in an ensemble of comedians. The wild card is Ducommun, who was at the absolute apex of his career and would never have more than a bit part. Around the time of The 'burbs, Ducommun was a fixture on HBO, whether on his two standup specials on the cable network or in the obscure John Travolta movie The Experts, which the channel overplayed. The role of Art was perfect for the Canadian comic, who used his unapologetic flab and odd voice to great effect.

I had been holding out for a more suitable DVD of The 'burbs, but as part of the Tom Hanks Comedy Favorites Collection, it was too good to pass up for only $15. It's clearly the star when paired with Dragnet (which is more of an Aykroyd vehicle) and the clunker The Money Pit, and you even get an amusing alternate ending, which wouldn't have made anyone mad if it was left on.


PIPER said...

I never dreamed that the burbs could be analyzed as deeply as this, but you have done a fine job.

I think for the same reason so many like Desperate Housewives, there is a comfort and security in a movie that never goes beyond the neighborhood. And that neighborhood is classic Hollywood. And there's the human element that comes into effect when that security is violated by new people.

I love this movie but wish that it went a bit more camp a la the camera zoom and pull back when they find the leg bone in the back yard.

But to me the best of this movie is when they finally visit the new neighbors and how awkward/funny that is.

Good stuff.

Unknown said...

Adam, you wrote a great criticism and comparison of the Burbs to Rio Bravo. Ever since it came out in the theater I've been a major fan of this film and was lucky enough to pick up the first edition of this on DVD back in...i think 96 or 97. The dialogue is permanently etched in my brain. It definitely is a timeless movie although the aspect that I love is the Ricky Butler and friends facet. They are totally '80s skater kids who listened to hard rock. Mullets and all! That reminded me of how I was when I was younger, but I was that way because I wanted to BE Ricky Butler and his friends! lol. The mixture of comedy and borderline horror was just so exciting to me as a kid. The humor in the movie was dead on, and the jokes still work. Even though all the actors get alot of face time and get to be funny, while Hanks is actually this suburban husband tortured by the daily routine. There's rarely anything exciting happening in the suburbs so it's inhabitants sometimes create some themselves. I know this from living in the suburbs all my life! The man just wants to enjoy his freakin' time off! Which is what leads to my point, and that is setting this movie on his vacation from work. You never think "wow, does this guy ever work?" He does, but he's trying to relax and he can't because his friends are pestering him with paranoid notions. Can a man relax anymore? If the spark of paranoia doesn't come from the TV or out of your neighbors mouth it'll always be a thought in your head. Maybe Hanks would've been better off going to the lake where all is quiet and serene? Well except for the hydrocephalic.