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The Burbs
1989 - PG - 101 Mins.
Director: Joe Dante
Producer: Larry Brezner
Written By: Dana Olsen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman
Review by: John Ulmer
The opening credits of "The 'burbs" give us the impression of a film that could turn out to be extremely witty. It's about a small suburban neighborhood in Middle-America comprised of a bizarre array of really wacky people. Tom Hanks plays the main character, an amiable guy who has taken a week off of work, and is now just sitting around the house all day in his PJs, suspecting that his new next-door neighbors are hiding something. Another one of his neighbors, a paramilitary nut with no war to fight (Bruce Dern), decides to investigate a little - and they soon believe that the family is a pack of murderers.

As the film progresses onwards it becomes a bit dumb, especially towards the very end, which was allegedly re-filmed after test audiences did not like the original climax. Maybe they should have kept their mouths shut.

The pack of apparent murderers is led by Academy-Award nominee Henry Gibson, who is one of those great underrated characters actors, and who always manages to creep out the audience without having to say anything at all. The movie leads us to believe that he is a murderer. What's awful about the end is the "twist" - or how sloppily it is presented. I would have bought it; I would have been surprised by it, if it didn't seem so forced and unbelievable. I started wondering whether the whole ending was a dream sequence. Much to my disappointment, it was not. But just now I thought of a way that the film might have ended that would have sustained its dignity and actually shocked people instead of embarrassing them with its ineptness.

I will not lie: "The 'burbs" is pretty mediocre, and I can understand why many people might dislike it. Yet as with many comedies from the '80s, it carries a sort of charm and is almost criminally fun and easy to watch. I just watched it again at 12:50 a.m. this morning, having not seen it for quite some time, and it not only held my interest, but I learned to appreciate the movie for what it is - again.

"The 'burbs" was directed by Joe Dante, a man with a lot of wit and talent at making dark camp films. "The Howling," which I disliked, was nevertheless superbly directed; "Gremlins," one of my favorite films, was dark, humorous and smart; "Small Soldiers" was the perfect example of a unique idea helmed by a man who knew what he wanted; and "The 'burbs" is just about the most solid example of Dante's style. Mixing elements from Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg, Dante is one of cinema's better directors, if only because he is great at presenting us with crazy material and doing it tongue-in-cheek and not taking himself too seriously. He's a man with a lot of imagination that crosses over onto his celluloid; I don't think he's as much as a mainstream sellout as he is an old-fashioned storyteller, like an old man who gathers around a campfire at night and tries to scare his audience, but manages to insert some laughs for good measure.

What propels "The 'burbs" past simple fun and into the realm of strangely addictive and satisfying viewing is the subtle genius of its plot. We all know about those closely-linked neighborhoods where everyone waves at each other in the morning as they collect their papers in their PJs, where the grass is always neatly-trimmed and green; where the newspaper boys always randomly throw papers and miss their targets by at least five feet; and the sort of neighborhoods where everyone is always watching everyone. "The 'burbs" is a movie with a lot of good idea, never sampled before or since in any mainstream production I have seen. There will always be movies with the stereotypical suburbs, but rarely will there ever be a movie that mixes them in with the core idea of "The 'burbs" - that the people in these suburbs all have quirky traits, and all take spying on each other to an extreme level; to such a level that they would suspect a strange new neighbor to be a mass murderer. "One day after mowing your lawn you just snap!" Hanks shouts towards the end of the movie. "The 'burbs" is at its best when it's toying around with the suburb clich├ęs and at its worst when it is distracted by tacky subplots. It's technically a rather poor movie, and I can understand why it received negative reviews in 1989. But fifteen years later it stands as an enchanting, but flawed, film that has an undeniably watchable undercurrent flowing through its veins. If this movie were on TV a week from now I'd probably watch it again, just like I have been for years.
Movie Guru Rating
Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not.
  3 out of 5 stars

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