Be forewarned: ‘The Burbs is ridiculous… the best kind of ridiculous. It reaches the level of cinematic insanity where you have no other choice but to sit back, give your brain a well-deserved rest, and laugh for reasons you can’t quite comprehend. Enjoy this film and hate yourself later for being immensely entertained by something so stupid. With that said, there are levels of greatness hidden within if you’re willing to look. Director Joe Dante is a master of highlighting the weirdness revealed when the mask of mundanity is removed, expertly utilizing humor to expose American arrogance.
The movie harks back to the days when Tom Hanks was the loveable goof, rather than the loveable Oscar-winning dramatic act-or. Following the likes of The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), The Money Pit (1986), and Splash (1984), The ‘Burbs was the fullest expression of his then onscreen persona. He’s the nice guy with good intentions who stares in wonderment as the world around him goes insane, and has little control over his own life. Hanks’ character, Ray, is the 1980s equivalent of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit; he goes to work every day, comes home to the suburbs for dinner with the wife and kid, golfs with the guys on the weekend, and vacations at the lake cottage.
The monotony of a life spent doing exactly as he is supposed to has worn thin, and this time all he wants is to spend his vacation drinking beer and doing nothing. This turns out to be pretty boring, and Ray gets beguiled into assisting his fellow suburbanites Art (the busybody) and Rumsfield (the Vietnam vet) as they investigate their neighbor Walter’s supposed kidnapping/murder. The motley crew believes the most recent arrivals, the Klopeks, are responsible and set out on a mission to spy and gather evidence against them. Their zany antics (and misdemeanor crimes) gradually escalate along with their paranoia and fear. “I hate cul-de-sacs; there’s only one way out and people get weird.”
Underneath the great comedic timing and cartoonish hijinks, what the movie is really about is the xenophobia that comes with white flight to the middle-class enclave of suburbia. These residents do horrible things to their neighbors merely because they are different; the Klopeks are foreign, other, “Slovak?”, so they have no place in the ‘burbs. Their house, car, yard, schedule, and family don’t fit within the bounds of what is acceptable; therefore, the existing group feels it is perfectly within their rights to attack the newcomers unprovoked. Some of Dante’s brilliance comes in aligning the audience with the aggressors, endearing you to them so you want them to succeed in terrorizing their neighbors. He uses epic close-ups and classic horror style soundtrack and sound effects to surround the Klopeks with a menacing atmosphere.
The movie gets better every time you watch it; repeating viewing slowly unravels the layers of pop culture references and social commentary. Audiences have taken a while to catch on (even through the period where it was constantly on one cable station or another), but the film is starting to get the recognition it deserves. The ‘Burbs has now secured its place among treasured cult classics, exactly the place it should have been all along.