Saturday, August 8, 2009
About A Nine On The Tension Scale
Joe Dante’s THE ‘BURBS is now twenty years old which really isn’t that big a deal because, well, lots of movies are twenty years old. But it was hard to watch it the other night at the New Beverly for opening night of this year’s Dante’s Inferno film festival and not think about how much has happened since I saw it opening weekend out in some actual New York suburbs all those years back. It doesn’t always seem so long but I know it is. Now I’m seeing it introduced here in L.A. by the director with one of the stars in attendance. First things first: the New Beverly has new seats and I’m fairly certain that anybody reading this who has been there will appreciate that (so at least something good came out of the Festival in Westwood closing). Second of all, the new 35mm print of THE ‘BURBS was absolutely beautiful and only added to the enjoyment of the evening. Opening the week in February 1989 that Tom Hanks was Oscar-nominated for BIG, the film was able to take advantage of that bit of timing and do rather good business in spite of some pretty nasty reviews (“…as empty as something can be without creating a vacuum,” said Vincent Canby in The New York Times). The film has survived over the years on video and cable not only because it’s funny but because there’s something comfortable about its rhythms that makes it ideal to return to for multiple viewings, maybe because people can absolutely relate to living somewhere where there’s nothing to do, even if it does look like a studio backlot. It just seems ideal for something to watch on a lazy Saturday when there’s nothing better to do. It’s minor Dante and yet it still seems like essential Dante.
On the tiny cul-de-sac of Mayfield Place in the town of Hinkley Hills, suburban husband and father Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) is taking a week off from work. Ignoring the pleas of wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) to go away for the week, Ray has nothing in mind but hanging around the house and relaxing but is soon sucked in by neighbors Art Wiengartner (Rick Ducommun)and Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) into suspicion regarding new neighbors the Klopeks who no one has ever seen and don’t seem the least bit interested in maintaining their yard, not to mention the suspicious noises that are coming from their basement. When the three men spot one of the Klopeks late one night shoving a mysterious looking bag into one of the garbage cans by the street, their suspicions escalate and soon suspicions arise when elderly neighbor Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) disappears. And like it or not, Ray soon begins to think that there really is something going on in the house next door.
Watching the film again at the New Beverly all these years later, I realize that while I may not have always been laughing during the running time—and I did laugh more than enough—I certainly did have a smile on my face throughout. The entire film is set on a suburban street which is obvious to anyone as a studio backlot—Universal’s Colonial Street to be exact which, while it was probably familiar at the time is now no doubt recognizable to anyone who’s seen an episode of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. The film has probably received criticism for this element of unreality but looked at as a pure Joe Dante film, this seems to be part of the point. The famously stylized Universal logo that opens the movie, diving towards the Earth all the way down to the street where it’s set in one shot, gets the point across—this film may be set on Earth but it’s set on the Earth that can be found only in Universal City, maybe the sort of place where Dante feels most comfortable. What sort of other conceivable suburbia would Gale Gordon reside in, anyway? John Avildsen’s Belushi-Aykroyd teaming NEIGHBORS, also set entirely in a cul-de-sac, has always played like it’s weird just for the sake of being weird in but in THE ‘BURBS much of that feel seems specifically calculated to what Dante is going for, to examine the odd, hermetically sealed nature of all the films and TV shows that have been shot on a street like this and why the people in them behave the way they do, with the constant bickering of Hanks and Fisher in particular coming off as a sharp contrast to that. Even the dream sequence seems ideally executed to combine dreamlike surrealism with a simple degree of the mundane to and the entire film reveals a consistent cinematic mind at work.
The film also gets a lot of mileage out of a cast which goes together just right and as he often does, Dante wisely stages many scenes to allow everyone to interact with each other as much as possible and let them take full advantage of their surroundings—check out the constant eating Rick Ducommun does during the early kitchen scene. In some ways it would be a interesting experiment to any director who has a personal style—have them shoot an entire film in an enclosed location—a room, a house, a suburban street at Universal—let them cast anyone they want, have the film be what they want and see what happens. What will that director try to do with the idea? What will such an approach tell us about the director and their thematic interests? THE ‘BURBS does take a look at the essential laziness that can come from living in the suburbs, along with random conversation about new tool sets and the like as well as Dante’s own attraction to the underlying nastiness that people try to ignore in those places. But more than that it seems to reveal that what he is going for is the pure enjoyment out of watching these people in this plastic environment and to see how far he can push both the uncomfortable comedy of the scenario as well as his own filmic interests within it.
Every now and then it feels like there’s a darker turn that it could take considering the implications of the storyline, something it doesn’t do in favor of being a goofy Tom Hanks movie—not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course—but enough of the Dante nastiness lingers if you let the movie stay with you. The issues that the film brings up about living in the suburbs don’t seem to matter as much as viewing this backlot world through his eyes and the skewered entertainment that comes from that is more than enough. There are laughs throughout, some of them in abrupt dialogue (“Klopek. Is that Slavic?” “NO!”), some of in filmic conventions that the director is playing with, well, just because he can, like the Leone-Morricone like series of close-ups that occur out of nowhere or the infamous hyperactive zoom lens. It all still puts a smile on my face. In many ways, THE ‘BURBS should just be taken as it is.
Tom Hanks, coming off as entirely willing to push the envelope of his then-expected nice guy persona, is backed up by a terrific cast particularly Rick Ducommon, who seems willing to add his own bits of business more than anyone and the great Bruce Dern, deadly serious when addressing the subject of something like “the goddamn brownies,” making everything he does extremely funny throughout. Fisher gets points for coming off as not caring if her bluntly pragmatic wife is not the slightest bit likable, Henry Gibson and Brother Theodore seem just right in this odd comic universe as the Klopeks and the Dante regulars (Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Wendy Schaal, Corey Feldman) who turn up are all extremely well-used. Dante’s clear enjoyment at letting everyone do something that fits in with his approach is much of the reason why this film, as well as most of his films, are so continually rewatchable and presenting them in a cast recap over the end credits shows how much he enjoys what they’re doing as well. Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific score completely adds to the relaxing nature of the film, with his twist on his own score for PATTON to represent Bruce Dern’s vet one of the best touches. One key music cue near the end turned up again in the following year’s GREMLINS 2 in which it actually fits the scene in question better.
Dante introduced the screening and briefly spoke about how the film was shot during the 1988 writers strike and the script by Dana Olsen hadn’t quite been nailed down when shooting began. As a result, the director made use of a lot of improv by the actors and he had the film shot in sequence to allow for this, using Scorsese’s NEW YORK NEW YORK as an example of how improv shot out of order can result in things spiraling out of control. Either way, they still wound up veering away from the script considerably. This looseness really comes across at times and some of what’s said—particularly during the arguments between Hanks and wife Carrie Fisher—has a messiness to it that seems strangely realistic in this oddly fake environment. I also can’t help but think that Brother Theodore was responsible for calling Corey Feldman and his friends “Hepcats!” Dante commented on the bad reviews the film received at the time including the notice from Vincent Canby (Ironically, considering Dante’s comments on the script, Canby also said in his review that Hanks, having just received an Oscar nomination, was this time “attempting to act a role in a screenplay whose pages are blank.”) but also mentioned how over the years people from all walks of life have quoted dialogue back to him when they find out he made it and the fact that the New Beverly was packed indicates that it does remain popular all these years later. The director brought down special guest Bruce Dern, also the star of the evening’s second film SMILE, to speak between the movies and after a brief intro Dern pretty much spoke non-stop for the next half-hour about a variety of things, including comparing Dante with SMILE director Michael Ritchie in the freedom both directors give their actors. He spoke at length about the likes of Kazan and Corman (I’ll get to SMILE soon enough) and a variety of other things throughout his long career, offering a great amount of praise for the director standing next to him—he’s also in Dante’s upcoming 3D horror film, THE HOLE.
When introducing Bruce Dern after the film, Dante offered to the packed house that there wasn’t very much to say about it in summation. That may have been a slightly flip comment, but there was a bit of truth to it. In some ways, he said everything he needed to say about the movie in the movie. I freely admit that I’m a fan of the director going back decades now and THE ‘BURBS is, maybe more than any of his other films, just a pure example of the director doing his thing, whether it all works or not. As a simple example of that, it’s nice to have the film there and it’s great to have this festival at the New Beverly so we can discover such things about this film and others as well.