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For, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: This early Tom Hanks vehicle was a disappointment to me but the comedy’s rabid fan base has prevailed upon The Shout! Factory to give it a Blu-ray upgrade with lots of bonus features. My review was published on Feb. 17, 1989.

Tom Hanks is hot, with a major hit in “Big,” critical raves for “Punchline” and now a “Big” Oscar nomination as well.

So why he chose to follow those films with the very modest “The ’burbs” is rather mystifying.

For that matter, one wonders what director Joe Dante, best known for his manic “Gremlins” and the wonderfully zany “Innerspace,” saw in the script by Dana Olsen, whose earlier work includes the very weak “Wacko,” “It Came From Hollywood” and “Going Berserk,” along with episodes of “Laverne & Shirley.”

It’s the same old problem so many contemporary comedies have — what would make a funny 10-minute skit on “Saturday Night Live” will not necessarily sustain a feature-length film. And that’s certainly true of “The ’burbs.”


         Carrie Fisher, Tom Hanks, 'The ’burbs'

Hanks and Carrie Fisher play a married couple with a young son living in suburbia. The plot has Hanks becoming obsessed with the new next-door neighbors, who have been in their gothic-style, pseudo-haunted house for a month without anyone having seen them. Further, strange lights and electrical charges can be seen in the basement windows.

Others in the neighborhood are also curious, primarily wacked-out Vietnam veteran Bruce Dern and his ditsy wife Wendy Schaal, bombastic Rick Ducommun and teen rocker Corey Feldman. And when another neighbor (Gale Gordon) disappears, they become suspicious that the mysterious new neighbors may have been involved somehow.

Evidence seems to mount in that direction as the neighbors are seen digging in their backyard on a rainy night, as Gordon’s toupee somehow winds up in the new neighbor’s house and when the head of the household (Henry Gibson) literally has blood on his hands.

Meanwhile, Hanks, who is on vacation — but would rather spy on the neighbors with his childlike buddies than go fishing with his wife and son — starts going slightly bananas about it all. Ducommun and Dern are already quite bananas, thank you.


“The ’burbs” starts off with some funny stuff, and if it had developed its characters and tried to satirize suburban life instead of going for “Beetlejuice” mania, it might have worked. Oddly, suburbia in this vein was spoofed much better in “Poltergeist,” which this film faintly resembles.

One of the main problems here is that the screenplay refuses to accommodate more than a couple of characters at a time. After a brief introduction, the boy who plays Hanks and Fisher’s son virtually disappears, and conveniently, Ducommun’s wife is on vacation, as are Corey Feldman’s parents — and so, it would seem, is the rest of the neighborhood, since no one else bothers to come outside to see what’s going on until the film’s explosive climax.

Further, there are plot holes galore, and the final wrap-up, explaining the odd family’s activities, is most unsatisfying.

Still, Hanks, Dern and Feldman provide some laughs here and there, and Dante’s inventive direction offers some nice little in-jokes, if you’re quick enough to spot them (I especially liked the photo of Lucille Ball on Gale Gordon’s piano).

But to call this picture “slight” is to exaggerate its impact.

“The ’burbs” is rated PG for violence, profanity and some vulgarity