The ‘Burbs (1989)

Directed by Joe Dante

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In The ‘Burbs, a vacationing family man begins to obsess over the mysterious new neighbors whose haunted house exterior to him suggests a dark secret.  That man is Ray (Tom Hanks), and we never really learn anything about Ray beyond his family life here in the suburbs.  The whole movie takes place on their typically quiet but buzzing street, alive with residential energy including a best friend who likes to shoot crows, a Vietnam veteran (Bruce Dern), a teenager who makes too much noise (Corey Feldman) and another old man whose dog likes to poop on Dern’s lawn.

This quiet street is a theatre, in other words.  The outside world might as well not matter or even exist.  We know Ray must have some kind of life out in the real world, but as far as we’re concerned, his entire life takes place right here, with these people.  The premise at the start of the film is that Ray is on vacation, but I guess we should assume the same goes for the neighbors.  None of them have any concern for life beyond the suburbs, and whether because they’re bored or simply too comfortable, they let their imaginations run dangerously wild.

Every house on this street is picturesque, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  In an early establishing shot, the type that seems to be in every movie from this time with the cranes, dollies and a bunch of background actors attracting the camera’s attention this way and that until it ultimately comes to rest on our protagonist, we see the hustle and bustle of life here in the ‘burbs.

A newspaper boy tosses the paper aggressively at each resident, Ray enjoys the scene with his morning coffee, Mark (Dern) salutes the American flag in a morning ritual, and on and on and on.  The idea is that everyday is the same here, but that’s more than okay.

Except that now there are new neighbors who recently moved in.  Their house is like a rotten tooth in a mouth full of otherwise healthy, whitened teeth, and everyone notices.  The house might as well be Norman Bates’ home, with all its ominous shadows and silhouettes not to mention the weeds and dying landscape.

Everyone has their reservations about this new home, of which the one visible tenant looks like he’s from Deliverance.  When the boy opens the front door on one occasion, the entire neighborhood stands stiffly at attention, riveted by this brief glimpse inside the mostly secretive home.

The movie certainly puts you in Ray’s shoes, making our imaginations run just as wild as his, though this moment is certainly a bit unnerving and hints at the fault of the rest of the neighborhood who, rather than letting the new neighbors exist in peace, chooses to suspect and vilify them.

Ray, Mark and the third friend, Art (Rick Ducommun), band together to investigate these new neighbors.  Their motivations vary as does the degree of their suspicion, but by the end they’re all on the same page.  This being a comedy, the three friends’ plan feels like something a few ten year old boys would come up with during the summer when they have too much time on their hands.  There’s even a later scene meant to drive home this idea, in which Ray’s wife (played by an underused Carried Fisher) tells the ‘boys’ that Ray can’t come out to play today.

There’s something fascinating here, I think, in this infantilization of adult men.  Maybe it’s just because this is a broad-ish comedy, but I think it reads more as a sort of suburbia-induced madness.  These are men who have nothing to do and no discernible passions or even hobbies.  They’ve made it far enough to live comfortably, own their own home in a safe location where, as they note, you don’t need to lock your own doors.  They’ve made it, but now that primal part of their brain, the part that feels the need to protect or to gather or to hunt, is wasting away.  Ray, Mark and Art begin to drive themselves mad, particularly Ray, in this obsessive, manic, ill-advised quest for the truth.

But that truth isn’t an objective truth.  Ray is out to prove what he already suspects, that his new neighbors killed another neighbor.  They are guilty before proven innocent, and Ray becomes taken with his own morbid fantasies, mentally crucifying them from the start simply because they’re different.  That difference becomes the danger just because they can’t understand this other family.

From this perspective, and with Mark’s affinity for guns and violence, it’s hard not to see this movie as surprisingly topical.  On one hand I want to like Tom Hanks whenever I see him, but Ray very much loses his mind here and acts without thinking.  By the end of the movie he has accidentally blown up the neighbors’ home, and he’s finally ready to give up his self-sacred mission… until we learn that he was right all along.  You see, the eldest of the neighbor family, an affable doctor, really did murder a bunch of people, and Ray was right all along.

And this is very disappointing.  On the surface this is a light-hearted comedy, but I think it’s a very toxic movie, letting audiences justify their possibly mistaken theories about people they don’t understand and couldn’t bother themselves to get to know.  We’re supposed to root for Ray and company and celebrate that they were right all along while overlooking their very obvious flaws, paranoias and prejudices.

Or maybe we’re not supposed to ignore that.  I think some audiences might remain on Ray’s side the entire movie, and others might recognize the satire and critique of Ray’s character.  He’s driven to madness by the American Dream, in some ways.  He’s done everything the right way, and it’s gotten him here, to this point of absolute boredom.  I mean, Ray has a son, but we hardly ever see him interact with that son.  Where did the son go?  I don’t remember seeing him for the last 40 minutes of the movie.

Ray is a character you might only sort of like because he’s played by Tom Hanks, but he’s a troubling figure.  Near the end of the movie he lashes out at his friend Art, realizing that they themselves are the problem, not the neighbor, and it’s like okay cool, he’s figuring it out.  But when, in the third act turn which feels like a studio note, we learn that the neighbors really are evil, it washes away all of Ray’s sins, justifying his poor behavior and troubling attitudes.

As a comedy, this movie isn’t all that funny.  It has the look and feel of a comedy, with the snarky characters, wise-cracking teenagers, occasional witty one liners and the cooky characters with their crazy plans, but it’s not very amusing.  Occasionally the story gets surprisingly frightening, like a horror movie, and it ultimately feels like a stale mix of these two genres.  Another version of the story might commit to the comedy or the horror, and through that commitment might better tell us how to feel about the characters’ behavior.  If this were an outright comedy, we would laugh at their foolish attempts and understand the flaws of their character, but if this were an outright horror movie, then we’d identify with their fear and root for them completely.

But The ‘Burbs tries to do both genres.  We’re meant to laugh at the characters but then feel what they feel.  Our viewing relationship to the characters, mainly Ray, keeps fluctuating until ultimately he’s deemed a mad man… and then the movie again switches, trying to make us feel the fear he feels.

The ‘Burbs is not a great movie, but it has the basis of something that could be great in so many ways.  Maybe it’s not the most imaginative movie, but if it had a point of view it might be made enjoyable.  As it is, though, it feels like an outdated joke, unwittingly (or wittingly?) justifying a white person’s fear-induced anger towards ‘the other.’

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