The ‘Burbs and the Sabotage of Conceit
Written Review by David Carter
So, here’s a scenario. Your friend is showing you a movie. One that you’ve been curious to see because you like the cast and you really like the director because they’ve made a handful of movies you really enjoy. You watch the movie and low and behold, the movie is a blast. The characters are clicking, the story is fun, the visuals are everything you want from a director with a distinct look and rhythm. You also slowly start to realize that this movie is about something, well all movies are ABOUT something but this one is building up to making a point. You get excited as the movie keeps building and building towards the end of the movie and it brings the noise. The third act happens and it’s rapturous, but above all else, the conceit of the movie is revealed and fulfilled. And in a way that is appropriate to the tone of the movie. Your dust yourself off and say “Well, that was worth the wait. Great movie, can’t wait to watch it again.”
Only to realize there are another 5 minutes left that’s gonna undo all the good that came before it and leave a big smudge across a mostly pristine canvas. All for the sake of some gags.
If it wasn’t obvious this was my experience watching Joe Dante’s The Burbs. A film about a middle to an upper middle-class neighborhood, filled with people with nothing better to do than not mind their own business. The film stars Tom Hanks as an anxious man named Ray Peterson on vacation and his neighbors Mark Rumsfield (played amusingly by Bruce Dern as an uptight military man) and Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun who made a living by portraying pleasantly annoying average white dudes in the 80’s and 90’s) who are suspicious of the Eastern European neighbors (The Klopeks played by Courtney Gains, Brother Theodore, and everyone’s favorite Illinois Nazi, Henry Gibson) who have somewhat recently moved into the neighborhood. Due to strange happenings and disappearing neighbors, the Klopeks are immediately pegged as fishy and the bored suburbanites take action and investigate.
The movie is undistilled Dante from the homage to horror of the 50’s and 60’s, to the mocking of the military, to the extraordinary happenings in suburbia. The whole cast is wonderful (I named checked the husbands but Carrie Fisher, Corey Feldman, and Wendy Schaal also bring it) and loved Jerry Goldsmith’s score (it literally opens with him quoting his most famous trumpet fanfare from Patton), but the ending of this movie really sticks out like a man in a green plaid suit against a white background.
You see, this movie sets up an idea: what if the “native” suburbanites are the ones who are being strange and disruptive? Obviously, it’s a comedy but the movie walks you to the place where Hanks and company are the ones doing legitimately unforgivable things. And at the end of the movie, Tom Hanks delivers a rousing final speech about how the suburbs are filled with busybodies, nosey people and people who are just looking for any excuse to target anyone who doesn’t fit into their cookie cutter existence. The movie even has the one black person with a speaking role (maybe even in the entire movie) scold the three men for their action as he’s about to take them to prison. I’m not even sure Dante meant to have this detail in his film but in my admittedly 2018 eyes it feels so pointed. I felt like at this moment the movie was successfully having it both ways but as I said, it was short lived. The movie then decides to confirm the fears of the suburbanites by having the Klopeks actually turn out to be a real threat. Hanks and crew were right all along, the foreigners that have invaded their space are the true villains and their outlandish and ugly actions are justified. Roll credits.
Look, I’m not saying that Joe Dante is some sort of nationalist. As a matter of fact I think that he was actually trying say something about the current state of middle class America and what he saw it turning into if things went too far (The character Art even has a line at the end about how people shouldn’t mess with the suburbs, which seems like a knowing line to me) but I do think maybe he was victim of his own playful attitude. I don’t know if the script underwent changes or anything like that, but to me, his decision to undercut the ending of his movie for a zany reveal probably came from wanting to send the audience out on wink and a chuckle. However, it’s unfortunate that he doesn’t see how the optics of the movie play out with that reveal.
I enjoyed this film quite a bit and look forward to watching it again and loving the hell out of things that work for me and you should too! I’ll just have to accept that ending for the lark it is but I know it’ll nag at me with every watch. The ending may be the conceit of a story but it’s not the entirety of its makeup. A goofy good time can (and still will) be had.