The ‘Burbs (1989)

I want to start this review by clearing the air about The ‘Burbs’s ending. I normally let these reviews critique the film itself, and not the discussion surrounding the film. To the extent that there is any ongoing discussion about a 33 year-old film, much of it is centered around the film’s final ten minutes.

In case that opening paragraph wasn’t enough warning, let me make it clear: I’m about to spoil what happens at the end of The ‘Burbs. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do so. It’s really damn good, and a lot of the pleasure is the way the anarchic rhythm and timbre of the comedy ratchets so steadily you don’t notice any individual increments, but you sure as hell know you’re watching a different movie than fifteen minutes ago.

Alright, so, the ending. The subject of the neighborhood’s investigation is, as suspected, a serial killer, not just a introverted weirdo. Almost everyone seems to hate this ending. I don’t.

This is not a bad twist, unless you are the type of narrative structural obsessive who equates “messy” with “bad.” And even if it’s misguided, the ending is certainly is not a movie-torpedoing catastrophe, a claim I’ve heard repeated more than once. The twist cuts against the grain of the satire built by the film, but doesn’t tear it into shreds. If everything leading to those last ten minutes wasn’t self-evidently and hysterically a crowbar to the shins of middle-class close-mindedness, it’s tough to believe a little bow as a conclusion would have sealed the deal.

I can certainly see that hitting the nail on the “tolerate others, lest ye become the monsters” theme would have made a tighter story, but I enjoy Joe Dante instead leaning into the “fuck it, we’re all crazy” vibes. It matches the film’s heightened reality and Looney Tunes spirit.

Beyond even its satirical elements, The ‘Burbs shines as a sitcom episode constructed and shot like a horror-comedy. 85% of the movie is a domestic comedy, but in Dante’s expert hands, there’s always tension and unease. It’s incredible juxtaposition. Danny Elfman’s slightly campy score adds a lot of flavor, too, with some amusingly creepy splashes. Dante is tremendous at carefully modulating the film’s energy so its genre touches and comic mania never overtake its sense of place or humanity, but it also never lets you feel relaxed. The houses are shot like Gothic mansions, elevating the sense of an upended domestic order, making plenty of space for visual jokes like ratty wigs and piles of trash.

Of course, having Tom Hanks in the lead role helps. Hanks is just about perfect in the role. Though he never quite captures the Tim Allen every-dad persona in the opening minutes, he certainly grounds the character and has both the comic skills and the acting chops necessary to make a believable descent to wacky hysteria. His singed march out of a recently-exploded house near the finale is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in months, not just because of Hanks’ shell-shocked expression and gait (though they are great) but because it’s a payoff on 90 minutes of his great work as buildup.

I quite like most of the acting, actually. There’s such an oddball set of energies to the cast: Bruce Dern is hilarious as the gung-ho Nam vet, and Corey Feldman is a pitch-perfect snotty teen. Carrie Fisher is solid as the level-headed wife, but not given nearly enough to do beyond nagging. The biggest disappointment — and it’s a doozy — is Rick Ducommun as Art, who is shrill and unfunny. One friend of mine observed that Art’s character feels like it was written for Hanks’s semi-frequent collaborator John Candy, and it kind of ruined the movie for me imagining how much better it would be with Candy in the role.

Nonetheless, The ‘Burbs thrives. It careens. It sparks and ignites. It is damn close to a masterpiece, perhaps Hanks’ funniest performance and funniest movie, and just so watchable and zesty.

Is It Good?

Exceptionally Good (7/8)

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