If there are two things I love in this life, it’s comedy and living in the suburbs. The comedy part is easy enough to understand: because funny things are funny. But why the suburbs? For one, I’m neither a city nor country mouse: I’ve lived the rural life and found it boring and very briefly tried out the city life and found it maddening. But there’s one residential category that suits me down to the ground and seems to strike a balance between these former two categories, and that is life in the suburbs.
I’m a staunchly middle-class square who likes his tea green with no sugar, pizza and a movie on Friday nights, tends to his collection of books, DVDs, and vinyl like a garden, hangs Christmas lights up in December and mows his lawn in the summer, enjoys a 6-pack of some craft IPA, and works in quiet, office-based white-collar intellectual fields. This extends to the type of setting that I enjoy living this buttoned-up life in: residential communities with a small main street filled with boutique shops, restaurants, a few well-stocked liquor stores, a grocery store, and that’s pretty much it. Besides the tourists that flood my shore town during the summer months, only 4,600 people live here year-round. It’s a haven from the chaotic world that surrounds and is an ideal place to live in general.
Considering that I’m mostly telecommuting these days, I almost never leave my little suburban town. And while I enjoy living here, spending all of your time in such an ideal can drive you a little crazy. I joke that I live in Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, but there’s something about familiarity in a small town that can breed boatloads of contempt after spending years in such a cozy situation. Meanwhile, you also tend to lose sight of the bigger picture when you’re mostly surrounded by nicely maintained houses and lawns occupied by neighbors who you may recognize by sight and the type of car they drive but don’t actually know much about them.
Director Joe Dante captured the type of creeping paranoia that begins to spread within one’s mind when they spend too much time in the sterile, picture-perfect, homogenized world of the suburbs in his 1989 comedy film The ‘Burbs. Portraying a cul-de-sac neighborhood (possibly the most claustrophobic arrangement in any suburb since you live on a dead-end street with only one way in and out) and a group of neighbors–all middle-aged men with too much time on their hands (with the exception of agent provocateur bored teenager Ricky Butler, who feeds into their growing paranoia)–who quickly jump to the conclusion that their new neighbors are murderers and overall evil.
They base this assumption on their apparent unfriendliness, the decrepit state of their home, and the strange bright lights and loud machine noises that emanate from their basement in the middle of the night. Also, the previous tenants of the house suddenly disappeared sight unseen one day and these strangers appeared soon afterwards. It’s little to go on but enough for this group of grown men (and one teenager) to start spinning wild, hysterical theories about their new neighbors.
By combining the artificial world of the suburbs with the cartoonish actions of a group of people going crazy in this well-manicured environment like rats in a cage, Dante’s The ‘Burbs is a highly stylized and very funny ode to life in the suburbs, and is not only one of my favorite comedies but I consider it a perfect movie.
The ‘Burbs – A Perfect Movie
This fantastic domestic comedy, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Joe “Gremlins” Dante, follows the increasingly frantic misadventures of stressed-out husband and father Ray (Hanks), who is taking a seemingly mandatory vacation from his job. Deciding to hang around the house and do nothing during his vacation instead of going somewhere with his family, Ray tries to unwind and enjoy the slow, uneventful life that the suburbs provides. His seemingly unemployed neighbor Art, however, has different ideas and begins to fill Ray’s head with notions that his new neighbors–who occupy the rather sinister-looking house next door–are somehow evil based on flimsy evidence and presuppositions.
From here, Ray is corralled into investigating these potentially evil new neighbors alongside Art, military burnout and survivalist Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) and over-enthusiastic teenager Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman). And while the (wonderfully named) Klopek family–who look like Dr. Frankenstein and Igor had a family–do act suspicious (from driving their garbage from the garage to the curb to seemingly never leaving their house to the loud whir and bright flash of light from the basement that happens in the middle of the night), it’s mostly the escalating paranoia in the minds of their neighbors that drive the plot in The ‘Burbs.
For starters, that all of the action in the film is limited to a single cul-de-sac neighborhood gives the film both a claustrophobic and oddly familiar feeling, like it’s the neighborhood you grew up in or currently live in: everyone lives in a splendidly bland house just a few dozen feet away from each other, clock everyone’s actions and behaviors in this small space, and constantly talk and gossip about their friends and neighbors.
In fact, there’s a meta quality to the familiarity of the cul-de-sac for the viewer since this is a set on the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles. Known as “Colonial Street,” it has been the setting for a number of TV shows and films, most famously as Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives. The heightened artificiality of Dante’s overall cinematic style is only enhanced by this vaguely familiar setting for the viewer and can be palpably detected in the film’s overall tone of viewing the suburbs as a place of tranquility on the surface with something sinister lurking beneath the perfectly manicured lawns and superficially polite social codes.
The film in general is shot with Dante’s overblown, nearly cartoon-like, style: the Klopeks’ house is a dark and foreboding sight even on a sunny summer day, so much so that setting foot on their property somehow summons a gust of wind that nearly blows Ray off his feet; the typical suburban adults are all dressed in their uniforms of short-sleeve button-down shirts and shorts and house dresses; inconsequential moments of knocking on a neighbor’s’ door or bullshitting with your neighbors on a summer night are portrayed as moments of great seriousness and portent. Heightening the sublimely bland environment of a suburban street as a space where great mysteries and wild adventure can be uncovered, Dante effectively puts the viewer in the headspace of the overbored (notably male) citizens of this street who view their shared living space as a battleground to defend.
There’s a lot in this movie that could be read as a comment on how the suburbanization of the male in the second half of the 20th century has suppressed the nature of masculinity: Ray openly states that all he wants to do is play around with his new set of tools, fix some stuff around the house, drink beer, and listen to the baseball game on the radio on his vacation (which, it’s hinted at, he desperately needs to relax). But at the first hint of potential mystery and adventure, Ray is sucked into the persistent call to action by his fellow male neighbors. By the end of the movie, this group of guys are treating breaking into the Klopek house to find evidence of their nefarious deeds as a military mission, complete with cutting power lines, using a rock to smash in a window to break in, and digging a deep trench in their basement to find (theoretical) buried bodies. As much as Ray claims he wants to relax and goof around on his vacation, instead he’s nearly clawing at the walls on day one of his vacation and is more than eager to join his fellow suburbanized male neighbors in their quixotic quest to reveal the Klopeks as dangerous interlopers in their picture-perfect neighborhood.
The movie’s greatest strength, of course, is that it’s very funny in both an obvious and subtle way. Produced during the great comedy era of Tom Hanks’ career, here he is at his Hanks-iest best, playing the easily flustered, over-excited Ray, flailing, being sarcastic and exasperated, and playing up his talent as a physical comedian. Once you buy into its premise of “a group of suburbanites unravel over the course of a week,” the smaller details that Dante painted in every corner with his characters begin to reveal themselves–particularly with the nosy and pushy neighbor Art, who is introduced barging into Ray’s house during breakfast and eating nearly everything in sight and whose wife has tellingly gone on vacation without him.
But the smaller character moments–of Ray’s wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) displaying an increasingly annoyed patience with her husband with subtlety; or Ricky Butler, a constant source of wild rumors that find their way around the neighborhood (and whose parents are also conspicuously absent); or the seeming red herring of the overly creepy and cryptic Klopek clan (alliteration!) who are so over-the-top decrepit and sinister that the viewer at first assumes that they will turn out to be completely innocent of their neighbors’ wild, invented accusations of being murderers (they aren’t)–flesh out this closed circuit world that Dante details in The ‘Burbs and helps make the neighborhood a fully realized little pocket of the universe–albeit one filled with slightly crazy people.
Joe Dante–best known for directing comedy-fantasy films like Gremlins, Explorers, and Innerspace, is tethered to the domestic real world and its banality in The ‘Burbs, and as a result turns it a fantastical place where stealth missions of ringing a neighbor’s doorbell, looking across the street, and chatting with your goofy friends turn into Spielbergian moments of epic revelation and importance. But it also flies off into very silly moments, such as the over-the-top scream after discovering a buried bone (identified by Art as a femur bone) elicits from Ray and his nosy neighbor, complete with a rapid B-movie zoom in-and-out.
In the hands of another director, this film would have been yet another solid, but otherwise unremarkable, Tom Hanks comedy from the 1980s. But with Dante’s gift for the fantastic, it raises The ‘Burbs from just an above-average comedy into a surprisingly slick satire on suburban life, transforms the familiar trappings of domesticity into a magical realm, and–like magic–turns this little comedy from the late 80’s into a perfect movie.