The ‘Burbs

May 20, 2020

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.


December 5, 2012

dragnetDan Aykroyd, always a trifle uneasy playing normal characters on the big screen, finds his groove in Dragnet. That’s because Aykroyd spends the entire film doing an outrageously good impersonation of Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday.

The original television series, which had a couple of long runs on network TV (and eternal life via reruns), was Webb’s creation, and it all centered on the terse, rock-skulled, supersquare Joe Friday, who was perhaps the most rigorously stylized character in the history of series television.

Aykroyd has a field day mimicking Webb’s grave assessment of the gone-to-pot modern world, particularly those breath-defying speeches that would dart from Webb’s mouth and invariably begin with, “Listen, Mister, let me tell you something….”

At one point Friday arrests a thug at the ocean and barks, “Surf’s up, beach boy, but not for you—you’ll be hanging ten downtown.” That’s a perfect approximation of Webb’s dialogue, including the hopelessly square “mod” slang. As funny as Aykroyd is, this performance is affectionate, not mean.

The movie is like that, too. All the series’ running routines are here, form the music to the “This is the city” narration to the final glimpse of the criminal in prison blues, all rendered good-naturedly.

The movie does depart from the series aesthetic in an important way, however. Webb kept the show tight, clipped, and simple. The film falls prey to the more-is-better philosophy that seems to pervade so many comedies these days. It’s way overextended, with a plot too big for its oen good.

Of course, this is a movie, not a TV show, and the story needs puffing up. But not this much. Joe Friday, a nephew of Webb’s character, finds a new partner in the unorthodox Pep Streebeck (Tom Hanks). Streebeck’s swinging ways draw out some healthy outrage from the uptight Friday (Streebeck calls him a “petrified monolith of legal propriety”), and the film gets some laughs from their clash of styles. Their boss is played by Harry Morgan, who reprises his role as Bill Gannon from the TV series.

The big case they have to crack involves a televangelist with a frozen smile (played by Christopher Plummer as a cross between Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson) and a police commissioner (Elizabeth Ashley) who have created a nefarious organization called PAGAN (People Against Goodness and Normalcy), for reasons too complicated to explain.

This leads into pagan rituals, an attempted virgin sacrifice, and a big shoot-’em-up climax. Director Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote the script with Aykroyd and Alan Zweibel, doesn’t have enough style to dovetail the action stuff into the funny Aykroyd/Hanks banter, though he comes close at times.

As a summer movie, it’s not a bad two hours. Aykroyd’s performance, which may go over the heads of audiences not familiar with the series, is very easy to enjoy. With his locked jaw and crewcut at constant attention, he pulls the film into some funny places.

First published in the Herald, June 27, 1989

Playing to Aykroyd’s strengths for impersonation here, a wise move for an actor with a narrow but effective gauge. I always wondered why Hanks did this picture, and I always wondered why his character name was Pep Streebeck.

Turner & Hooch

August 2, 2012

During his first-ever stakeout, a small-town cop sits in his car with the only witness to a murder. The witness is a dog, a big, ugly, smelly mastiff, and the cop’s only sanity-saving device is to free-associate on whatever subjects come to his mind, which range from some helpful advice on the dog’s drooling problem to fond remembrances of an almost-forgotten 1960s TV show with talking chimps.

That the actor who plays the cop is Tom Hanks has a lot to do with why this is the most appealing scene in Turner & Hooch, the latest grown-up variation of the boy-and-his-dog story. Hanks’s playing is so wonderfully fluid, so inventive, that he lends the scene an air of breezy improvisation.

The rest of the movie should be so inventive. It’s redundant in its very concept: Just a few months ago, we had K-9, a dreadful film about a cop who was partnered with a dog. The cop didn’t like the dog at first, but of course he grew to love the beast.

In Turner & Hooch, Turner (Hanks) isn’t partnered with the canine, but he does need to bring Hooch into his house and keep him around for possible culprit identification. The man-dog interaction has a familiar ring to it, despite Hanks’s best efforts (he taunts the hapless dog, “This is what you can do when you’ve got thumbs!”). The obligatory love interest, played here by Mare Winningham (as a sympathetic veterinarian), fares somewhat better.

The script bears the credits of some of Hollywood’s highest priced writers, who together have managed to create a property utterly without any personality. For instance, the Hanks character begins the film as a compulsive neatness freak; he learns to relax because of the dog’s friendly slovenliness. Only problem is, this feels like one of those conflicts that writers dream up in order to give a story bite; it’s artificial.

Director Roger Spotiswoode has shown an offbeat comic touch in the past (check out The Best of Times on video), but he can’t do much more than make this slick package look good. When the introduction of Hooch is accompanied by slow motion and the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (aka the 2001 theme), you know it’s a desperate moment. Hooch, for his part, performs like a champ. In real life a De Bordeaux named Beasley, he is a frightful creature.

First published in the Herald, August 3, 1989

Hanks said somewhere that this was a key film for him, in the sense that it forced him to truly be inventive and original (or something like that) in his acting, because his co-star was an animal, and that he was proud of his work here. That doesn’t mean I have to like the movie.


January 31, 2012

Hanks and Zoltar: Big

When a 13-year-old New Jersey boy confronts an automated carnival fortune-teller called Zoltar the Magician, the kid confesses his most fervent wish: to be big. It’s a natural desire; he’s been hurting because his secret crush is a good foot-and-a-half taller than he. Next morning, when the boy rolls out of bed, he’s 6 feet tall and has stubble on his chin. He’s big, and he looks like Tom Hanks.

Big is the latest movie about a personality transplanted to a new body (a craze that includes Like Father, Like Son, and Vice Versa). Evidently Big was in the works before those other films, and it is the slickest of the three—and, in Tom Hanks, it has a most engaging leading man.

As a newly big person, Hanks can’t convince his parents that he is indeed their little son (they think he’s a kidnapper), so he head to New York to try to find Zoltar and reverse the process. During his search, he gets a low-level job with a toy company and, in the manner of Being There, soon rises to the top through his uncomplicated enthusiasm for toys.

His innocence also captures the eye of a jaded executive (Elizabeth Perkins). Admittedly, they aren’t quite on the same level; while riding in the company limo, she’s sensitively telling him, “I’m really vulnerable right now,” as he’s sticking his head out the sunroof and shouting, “Ejector seat!” But they get along.

Up until the point that it has to resolve itself, Big is a regularly funny movie. The director, Penny Marshall (who used to play Laverne in “Laverne and Shirley”), has a nice way of letting comedic scenes develop; Hanks’s introduction to the niceties of hors d’oeuvres at a fancy company party may be the best slapstick scene of the year (he daintily chews the kernels off a cob of baby corn).

Marshall has a real touch with scenes of liberation. There’s a marvelous moment when Hanks bumps into his boss (Robert Loggia) in a toy store and the two of them play “Heart and Soul” on a huge electronic keyboard activated by their feet. And when Hanks gets Perkins back to his apartment, which is littered with inflatable dinosaurs and wind-up toys, he loosens her up by inviting her to jump on his trampoline—a giddy touch.

The finish, which Marshall plays as sentimental, isn’t nearly as inspired as the earlier anarchy. When the movie goes soft, the wind comes out of the comedic sails. But Hanks does a wonderful job throughout, and continues to be our most energetic light leading man. He was not, apparently, the first choice for the part: When Elizabeth Perkins was in the area recently on a publicity tour, she said that Robert De Niro was originally slated to play the lead role, a fascinating if unlikely sounding possibility. Fascinating, but not necessarily funnier.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The De Niro thing apparently should be “previously,” not “originally,” because some say Hanks was offered the part first but had scheduling problems. This is one of those movies that have the right elements so agreeably in place that the audience agrees to overlook a series of whopping issues (including the sheer weirdness of having a family experience the disappearance of their kid for a few weeks). In any case, Hanks is pretty glorious, and I enjoyed interviewing Elizabeth Perkins.

Bachelor Party

May 19, 2011

Bachelor Party is a prime example of what is known in Hollywood circles as “high concept.” Now, as everyone is aware, Hollywood is a world unto itself, with its own language, and high concept is a term that has no real meaning.

But among movie folk, high concept is a quality that is lustily sought in film packaging today. If a film has high concept, it means you can convey the entire subject matter, approach, and general mood of a movie with one sentence. The idea is, if it takes much more than that to explain a film, you’ve lost the public’s attention.

A cynical notion, but this is truly what goes through the minds of people down Southern California way.

Take Ghostbusters: Ghosts chased by “Saturday Night Live” alumni. High concept. Gremlins has high concept. Another Country has low concept. Once Upon a Time in America has rock-bottom concept.

But Bachelor Party—ah, it must have been a publicist’s dream. It’s all in the title, folks: the two words promise naughtiness, booze, bare chests of all kinds, music, dancing, the high spirits of the final fling, and a donkey.

All those things are in Bachelor Party, and more. I’m not telling what the donkey does, but everyone else has a wild, noisy time. The audience at the preview screening had a wild time, too, apparently undaunted by the film’s crassness, disorganization, and rampant sexism.

The movie is divided into two parts: a likable guy announces his engagement, and his friends announce the bachelor party. The groom tries to assure the bride that nothing bad will happen at the party, while the girl’s rich parents—and her preppy ex-boyfriend—try to halt the wedding by whatever means possible.

The film’s amusingly sarcastic tone turns raunchy, as the second half of the movie is the bachelor party itself. The boys rent a hotel room, hire some hookers, and proceed to get into most kinds of trouble. A side plot develops as the bridal shower going on at the bride’s house moves downtown to a male strip joint.

Bachelor Party was scripted by Neal Israel and Pat Proft, who also worked on the Police Academy screenplay. As with that film, you envision people setting around a table, composing a screenplay by trying to outgross each other: “Okay, we got the proctologist jokes, we got the transvestite surprise—howzabout we have the donkey overdose on amphetamines and drop dead?” Which is exactly what they do.

For all of its sophomoric excesses, there are funny moments in Bachelor Party, almost all of which are attributable to Tom Hanks, who plays the prospective groom (Hanks was the hero of Splash). Hanks needs a director’s discipline to be really good (and he certainly doesn’t have that here), but he is energetic, a freewheeling comic presence, and he keeps the film alive, even when it’s pursuing crudeness with the same relentless fervor with which the guys have their last fling.

“Relentless” is the word for Bachelor Party. It may be tasteless, but it does have drive; whether or not that drive will also drive you out of the theater will probably depend on your tolerance for anatomy jokes. I stayed, but I was glad to get out.

First published in the Herald, June 30, 1984

With Hangover II steaming into view, it seemed time to look back at a movie that made its mark in an era full of movies about young dweebs gettin’ some. It was obvious that Hanks was about to be way, way beyond this kind of thing very soon, and he certainly proved me wrong about needing directing discipline to be really good. I got through the review without mentioning such prime Eighties stalwarts as Adrian Zmed and Tawny Kitaen, for which I can only, belatedly, apologize.