The ‘Burbs

burbsI began enjoying The ‘Burbs even before the movie began. From the famous Universal Pictures logo, the Earth spinning in space, the camera abruptly moves toward the globe, swoops through the atmosphere, and glides down toward a small suburban street in Anytown, Ohio.

This kind of playful visual joke is typical of director Joe Dante, who continually recreates the world as his own version of a Road Runner cartoon. Dante, a film freak whose funhouse movies include Gremlins and Innerspace, can generally be counted on to provide a good time. The ‘Burbs is certainly that.

Tom Hanks, fresh from his double-barreled success last year with Big and Punchline, plays a mild-mannered chap who lives with his wife (Carrie Fisher) and son in a quiet suburban home. Hanks is taking a week off from work, but he isn’t going anywhere; he insists he just wants to bang around the house and putter.

But you know what they say about idle hands. Hanks’ attention is caught by the new next-door neighbors. Nobody ever sees the Klopeks around, but their house has been emitting weird noises at night. Someone suggests they’re “nocturnal feeders.” As Hanks’ gung-ho neighbor (Bruce Dern) puts it, “In Southeast Asia, we’d call this kind of thing bad karma.”

Then, another neighbor vanishes, leaving behind only a toupee. Suddenly, Hanks and friends are convinced that the missing man: was made victim in a human sacrifice, and that the Klopeks are probably devil worshipers, and possibly worse. “Great,” Hanks’ wife says, “a week in Jonestown.”

So Hanks, Dern, and another nosy neighbor (Rick Ducommun) determine to find the truth about the Klopeks. (Like Ozzie Nelson, no one ever seems to work for a living here.) This they do, in an escalating series of mishaps.

Dante shot the film on the Universal backlot (same placid street as the Beaver Cleaver and Munsters houses), and he whips everything up with his customary glee. The colors are as bright as golf clothes, the music is constant and oversized, the ensemble cast is littered with oddballs (Gale Gordon from I Love Lucy, B-movie icon Dick Miller, and, as the Klopek brothers, Henry Gibson and New York conceptual comic Brother Theodore).

One night Hanks has a bad dream, and he envisions himself trapped in perhaps the ultimate suburban nightmare: He’s been strapped to a huge backyard barbecue, the coals glowing red beneath him. It’s a sight as wild as anything in Ken Russell’s mad imagining. But much more cheerful.

Rick Ducommun, who plays Tom Hanks’ sidekick in the film, passed through town recently to promote the movie. He’s a stand­ up comic who regularly worked Seattle clubs during a stay here from 1982 to 1985. If you saw him then, you might not recognize him now; he’s lost more than 200 pounds in the last two years (at his biggest, he says, “They weighed me on a freight scale and it was like ringin’ the bell at the fair … DING!”).

For a virtually unknown actor, Ducommun’s sizable role as the local busybody represents a plum. “I figured, I stand a better chance of winnin’ the lottery than bagging this role,” he muses. “It’s a huge picture and who am I? Universal and Imagine [Ron Howard’s production company] did not want me. I’m sure they would much rather have gotten John Candy, or someone anybody had heard of. But they were all very gracious after the movie started.”

The Saskatchewan native has a couple of other movies due soon: Little Monsters, in which he plays the leader of monsters who hide under beds, and The Experts, a John Travolta comedy that may be released only on video. “I was beat up my whole life for trying to get laughs,” he says. “Someone was always sendin’ me to my room, sendin’ me to detention. Now I’ve discovered they’ll pay me and let me do what I want.” And he shakes his head.

First published in The Herald, February 1989

I watched this again a year ago, for the first time since it came out, and it is a really enjoyable, extremely silly film. It was Ducommun’s great movie moment, in a role so big it seems certain it was meant for John Candy or something. (Plus: Brother Theodore! Henry Gibson! and Dern is really funny in this “Whoa – ’bout a nine on the tension scale, Reub” – moment YouTubed here). In the interview, Ducommon was engaging and hyper, chugging bottled water. He died in 2015.

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