Sunday, February 19, 2017

Joe Dante, part IX: The monsters are due


One of the 80s' best and funniest satires, it's known that The 'Burbs doesn't quite manage to stick its landing.  And yet it finally concludes, on one particular grace note, which suggests that The 'Burbs' bizarre and self-contradicting ending might actually be the single cleverest part of its indictment.

Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Dana Olsen
With Tom Hanks (Ray Peterson), Carrie Fisher (Carol Petersen), Rick Docommun (Art Weingarter), Bruce Dern (Lt. Mark Rumsfield), Wendy Schaal (Bonnie Rumsfield), Corey Feldman (Ricky Butler), Brother Theodore (Rueben Klopek), Courtney Gains (Hans Klopek), and Henry Gibson (Dr. Werner Klopek)

Spoiler alert: severe

Note: as the procession from part 7 to part 9 suggests, I skipped one, though it was by accident.  Turns out it's really easy to forget that Amazon Women on the Moon even exists.  We'll get back to it.

In the midst of conformity, comes difference—and, because it's America, you know what that means.  Clearly, The 'Burbs isn't exactly the first (or the hundred and first) work to tackle the clueless paranoia and violent hypocrisy of the middle class.  Nor is it the first to ironically locate its satire in far-flung suburbia, which had been built, after all, to serve as a safe space for all the good white folk of America.  But for all its lack of novelty, it's one of the better of its kind; hell, it's almost the best.  And it could've been (without even breaking a sweat), though anyone who's seen it all the way through knows why it isn't.

Its screenwriter, Dana Olsen, says that it was an attempt to depict the uncanny feeling suburbanites get when tragedy strikes and they find out their neighbors are only made of the same fallen humanity as everybody else—an "it-can-happen-here" terror mixed up with a perverse and prurient kind of fascination that, honestly, is a little hard to distinguish from joy.  Well, it's a perfectly credible foundation for a movie, and you can chalk that one up on the list of this film's absolute successes: maybe the best thing about The 'Burbs is the way it captures the dark desire for a catastrophe to loom, just so it might leaven the unremitting boredom of a lazy summer in the suburbs and give you something to do.

So, try reading the following two paragraphs in the voice of Rod Serling.

Let's go to the end of the road at Mayfield Place.  There we find a cul-de-sac, and one of its occupants, Ray Peterson.  He's a salaryman of an undisclosed species, just starting his summer vacation. This year, however, he's not doing anything.  His explicit goal: to sit around the house in a bathrobe and watch daytime TV.  We meet his family and his neighbors on this halcyon morning, and discover them to be a collection of noisy idiosyncracies, dressed in the raiments of Americana: Carol, his straitlaced housewife; Art, the greedy, gluttonous loudmouth next door; Lieutenant Rumsfield, the disturbed warrior across the street; and Bonnie, Rumsfield's sultry wife.  Finally, there's Ray's down-the-street neighbor, a young man by the name of Ricky Butler.  He'll serve as something like our host for the festivities to come, for when that subconsciously wished-for catastrophe arrives, it's Ricky and his fellow teenagers who serve as our surrogates, thronging the front porch to get their front-row seats for the collapse of civilization.  However, we don't yet meet the instigators of this particular collapse, Ray's other next-door neighbors, the mysterious Klopek family.

Noises and lights issue from the Klopeks' basement; they dig pits in their back yard at night; attempts at establishing contact with the reclusive, seemingly-foreign family end in ignominious futility; and, one night, Ray, Art, and Rumsfield see one of the Klopeks stuff a curiously heavy bag into their curbside trash can.  At this point, their imaginations run wild, and when another neighbor, Walter, disappears, it doesn't take much to push the upright citizens of Mayfield Place toward fantasies of murder most foul.  Ray would like to style himself the voice of reason, but when they find what looks like a human femur, even he can't put aside his suspicious.  And thus does this crack team of amateur detectives begin one of the most perfectly-farcical vigilante investigations of all time.

Basically, The 'Burbs is a sitcom.  The list of suburban-situated sitcoms that influenced or were influenced by this film must be nigh-on endless, with its ensemble cast of colorful rapscallions led by the Last Sane Man Who Isn't.  But of course it's a sitcom, though: for what could be more middle-class normal?  (And Mayfield Place was, literally, a sitcom neighborhood: a standing set used for all kinds of TV shows, including Leave it to Beaver's 1980s revival, Still the Beaver.)  But if it must be a sitcom, then it's still a sitcom that boasted not just a feature film production budget, but a feature film director at the height of his powers—one who saw the chance to remake a classic episode of one of his favorite TV shows, but in his own inimitable style.

The show, as you probably guessed from my name-drop, is The Twilight Zone.  (The episode is "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street," another tale of fear itself—though it wasn't the first time this filmmaker had entered the Zone.)  As for that Joe Dante style, that usually means one thing: a comedic genre hybrid where the comedy is so giddy, so hyperbolic, and so downright shrill that the comedy swallows the other genre whole.  This has not always gone so well.  Differentiating Good Dante from Bad Dante is thus a matter of taste.  But I'd say that you can classify Ineffective Dante by how closely he balances the funny with the serious—that is, Dante's flicks are at their least functional when he's actually trying to serve two masters, rather than his one true god, whom mortals call Chuck Jones.

The refreshing thing about The 'Burbs, then, is that it finds Dante doing nearly-pure comedy, but also comedy restrained by the specific genre-mash of Olsen's screenplay: there's the vaguest whiff of supernatural horror in The 'Burbs, but it's really a comedy-thriller, existing in a dimension not too altogether different from our own.  Dante had to keep it mostly on the rails of reality here, at least in terms of physical plausibility.  Now, he could let his characters be as psychologically implausible as they liked, and this seems to have satisfied him—but neither comedies nor thrillers have ever strongly rewarded that kind of plausibility, anyway.

Thus we get a lower-key cartoon than Dante's history would suggest, allowing its one-or-two-note joke characters to emerge (relatively) naturally from their quotidian surroundings, without forcing them nearly as hard as Dante ordinarily would.  There's only a bit here or there that goes to the overreaching extremes of Gremlins or Innerspace, which, as you know, are roughly 50% overreaching extremes by volume.  And the most egregious pieces of physical business are backloaded, so that by the time we arrive at them, we've built up to a tense fever pitch that justifies their balls-to-the-wall hilarity—ultimately culminating in that impressively pyrotechnic climax, whereupon Ray semi-accidentally makes the Klopeks' home actually explode, with him inside.

The punchline, though, is Ray emerging from the holocaust, not unlike a defeated Wile E. Coyote, right before he goes the full Daffy Duck—so sick of this damned subdivision and all the damned people in it, that he picks up his own gurney and stuffs it in the back of the ambulance, because the paramedics are not shipping him off to the hospital (and from there, presumably, to jail) nearly fast enough.

It works so flawlessly because it's at the exhausted tail end of Ray's total moral and mental breakdown, which is, as much as anything, The 'Burbs' truest subject.  Luckily for everyone involved, Ray is Tom Hanks, described by Dante back in '89 as "the reigning everyman."

And some things, thankfully, never change.

Like with so many Hanks roles, you forget that he's actually playing a bit of an irascible dickhead.  Usually, this gets masked by the Hanks persona, though it's not too much of a mask here: Ray's a crotchedy sort the minute we meet him, arguing with his wife about (essentially) nothing, before re-committing himself to living out his unemployment fantasy.

But, as I'm fond of saying, Hanks is Hanks—although it might be the case that The 'Burbs represents the very first time that tautology actually means something.  Either way, the man is unimpeachable here: Ray's progression from agreeably-disagreeable young dad to psychotic obsessive is an utterly natural one, helped along by the fact that, right up until the obsession takes him over completely, he is the Last Sane Man, the only one amongst his fellows who cares for such luxuries as "evidence" or "basic caution."  And so Hanks anchors all the undisguised cartoons who surround him; but, then, they help make him seem like a real person, too.  And down to a man, they're a well-cast bunch.  They may be one-dimensional, but they're sharply one-dimensional—notably Bruce Dern's self-referential parody of a Vietnam vet, but especially Henry Gibson's self-amused turn as the patriarch of a family who all seem to have walked off the set of one Universal Horror movie or another.

Not, necessarily, even one of the good ones.

It's very prime-time, though, and it's hard to imagine any family sitcom that lasted more than a couple of seasons not managing to wind its own way through the same basic plot.  Yet, just to repeat myself a little bit, The 'Burbs has the benefit of being a movie; and movies have endings.  The 'Burbs can take its ideas about suburbia all the way to the edge.  And so it does.  Then, of course, it just keeps going—which I don't mean in a wholly complimentary way.

It's really hard to overstate how superb everything is, right up until the moment of its denouement.  The Dantean machine is at peak efficiency: The 'Burbs has the decency to be an excellently-crafted satire.  Dante lets you get caught up in Ray and company's childlike excitement at discovering an evil plot unfolding right under their nose.  (In keeping with The 'Burbs' caustic attitude toward its subjects, it could've been made with actual children, and you'd barely need to change any of the dialogue.)  Yet it always keeps just the right amount of ironic distance for you to never forget that it holds these people in contempt, and so should you.  (Meanwhile, you couldn't avoid the score from Dante's regular composer, the great Jerry Goldsmith, even if you wanted to: a genre pastiche in its own right—with overwrought gestures toward classic horror, war movies, Westerns, and even his own career-long self-reference to Star Trek: The Motion Picture—it's a constant presence, and always calculated to undercut the action with its own humor, by sarcastically pretending that what's happening is epic enough to deserve one of Goldsmith's finest, and loudest, scores.)

The film's best running joke, though, is visual: a giant pile of garbage left to molder in the street, after Art and Rumsfield tear through a garbage truck on trash day.  (They were hoping to find a corpse, obviously.)  And though it begins with a welcome visit from those Dante repertory players Dick Miller and Robert Picardo, as two bickering garbagemen, Dante just lets that joke sit there, pretty much without comment, for the whole rest of The Burbs' running time.  Besides being a surpassingly great metaphor, it also amounts to one more nasty barb at these assholes' expense: indeed, they're so entitled and spoiled and lost in their own paranoid Real American nonsense that they would let a quarter-ton of garbage sit there rotting on the ground in front of their houses, because the job of keeping their neighborhood physically tidy is simply too beneath them for consideration, especially when there are still people with weird accents to be afraid of.

But then, there's that ending—a twist-for-a-twist's-sake that seems damn near designed to try to ruin it.  That's when when we get the impression that The 'Burbs has been operating this whole time under a whole host of bad misconceptions: first, that as a Zone riff, it must have a twist in the first place; second, that as a comic Zone riff, the twist has got to be at a direct right angle to the beyond-obvious actual message of the story; and, third, that the whole movie was just a dumbassed lark, not the morality tale its Zone connection made it look like.  But no, I categorically refuse to buy that last one: you can't say that these filmmakers didn't know what their film's themes were.  Not when Hanks shouts them at the top of his lungs in a harried and deranged (but also very sincere) monologue.  But that is how it plays, since, at the end of the day, our howling mob of deplorables was right.

(Additional story material for The 'Burbs provided by Ronald Reagan.)

Our satire takes an enormous hit; we have to content ourselves instead with a recognition that it was merely their methods which were unsound.  Even the alternate ending, which amounts to the same ending, except without as many vehicle stunts, still allows the Klopeks a much greater measure of dignity in their monstrous depredations: it's all in a little speech from Gibson that counterbalances Hanks' own harangue.  Through that, we find that within these creepy foreigners is an essential Americanness, after all—their pursuit is of life, liberty, and happiness, and it led them to the suburbs just as it led everyone else.  (Even if their particular vision of the American Dream involves somewhat more human sacrifice than normal.)  It's too bad, then, that Dante went with an ending, instead, where this is never quite properly spelled out.

So we can be rather annoyed by The Burbs' effort to subvert its own subversion, I think, especially since it comes so dangerously close to succeeding.  But we can, nonetheless, forgive The 'Burbs its excess—Dantean excess, after all, is surely nothing new to us.  Meanwhile, for almost two hours, he's given us an invigorating soak in some of the funniest paranoia that any comedy's ever managed; and, besides, this movie's not completely done with its meaner-minded satire.  In one masterful swoop, such a "gotcha" to the audience that I assume it's not actually (or, at least, totally) intentional, The 'Burbs redeems its satirical misstep.  It even almost turns it into an outright strength, for if you consider the thing, you start to think that maybe The 'Burbs' highest aspiration wasn't to tell one more simple tolerance parable, after all.

You see, after the battle for Mayfield Place has ended, we get a glimpse of Ray, returning home, and it helps that Hanks doesn't downplay his character's honest-to-God trauma.  But it's the very end that concerns us now, the moment that Corey Feldman's Ricky Butler swings back into the frame.  Feldman stares right into the camera, and implies that he knows our secret—that, like him, we needed something like this to happen, in order to justify our actions and ennoble our existences, or, if that was too much effort, just to give us something to gawk at, like the idiots The 'Burbs, rather correctly, believes us to be.

Score:  8/10


  1. When your mystery boils down to "Is something outrageous going on here?" at least 9 times out of 10 the more interesting answer is "YES!" And I've always felt that The Burbs was about that before it was about anything else. People believe in Bigfoot and shit because at the end of the day, as The X-Files put it, We Want To Believe!

    Tom Hanks' monologue is a sincere disclaimer about staring into the abyss, etc. before going ahead and giving us what we all came for. It's been a WHILE so I can't say with any confidence if the movie's heart is more into the "Don't try this at home" part or the "And here's the skeleton in the trunk Dun Dun DUNNN" part, but I do think it's the whole point that nobody who isn't a dullard went and bought a ticket to The Burbs in order to NOT see Tom Hanks uncover a freaky murder plot (good lord that's a lot of negatives).

    In hindsight, there probably was a more elegant way for the movie to have its cake and eat it, too: the suspicious neighbors are innocent... but we discover some OTHER crazy shit was going down right under Tom Hanks' nose.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I went something along the lines of half my life believing that the plot of Rear Window was the same as the plot of The Simpsons' parody of Rear Window, and I still kind of think that would be stronger thematically. (Despite all my top De Palmas being, basically, remakes of Rear Window.)

    3. Well, for starters, Grace Kelly doesn't buy an above ground pool and become Queen of Summer, which is arguably a strike against it.