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Suburbia has been a popular Hollywood target for nearly half a century. Movies like The Stepford Wives, Blue Velvet, and Pleasantville have offered some of our definitive benchmarks for American suburbs, not to mention early sitcoms like I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and The Honeymooners. But the almost forgotten 1989 comedy The Burbs deserves a high spot on the list, and thankfully you can see it on Peacock.
Just as we are now concerned with the social effects of gentrification, families leaving cities for the suburbs were once a major source of anxiety. The Burbs plays on that anxiety, using it as a backdrop for an irresistible mystery. Combining social satire, goofy comedy, and some light horror, it’s a fun smartwatch worth checking out.
We recommend that you check it out at Peacock.
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What is The Burbs about?
In The Burbs, Ray (Tom Hanks) is an incredibly, almost painfully normal guy. Trying to enjoy some free time from her undoubtedly monotonous job, she decided to spend a week at home in the suburbs and relax a bit.
But you can’t afford to fully relax, because something is not quite right with your new neighbors. The Klopeks are rarely seen, except for the youngest member of the family, who goes out alone to pick up the paper before running back. And at night, your house makes strange noises and bright lights that cannot be explained.
Increasingly suspicious, Ray and his neighbors Art (Rick Ducommun) and Mark (Bruce Dern) decide to investigate. They are surprised to see young Klopek drive from the family garage to the sidewalk, where he struggles to fit a heavy garbage bag into a garbage can before retiring to the house again. What’s wrong? To make things even more suspicious, it appears that another neighbor has disappeared.
Now, all three are hooked, and Ray’s stay turns into an investigation, with the three men convinced that the Klopeks are murderers, disposing of the bodies in their basement. And they won’t stop until they get some answers.
Hatchback meets Leave It to Beaver
There is something deeply intelligent about a paranoid mystery set in the suburbs. It allows you to explore all the little quirks of these fabricated communities.
By crafting a story reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Back Window, about amateur detectives investigating a crime they may or may not have witnessed, director Joe Dante raises the nosy, gossipy neighbor trope to 11. Dante’s experience at the Low-budget horror also helped with some of the weirdest visuals in the movie, including an absurd dream sequence in which all of Ray’s worst fears are confirmed.
The movie also tackles some of the more unpleasant aspects of keeping track of the comings and goings of your neighbors. There’s something innocent and comical about Ray commenting on his neighbors’ lawns and where his dogs poop. But his and everyone else’s concern about the origin of the Klopek has darker implications. “Is that a Slavic name?” he wonders aloud about the Klopek, with a clear distrust of outsiders.
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However, the unwritten rules of the suburbs also keep amateur detectives at bay. After all, they are also being watched. You can’t just walk away and rummage through the garbage in plain sight, as the apt saying goes: “What would the neighbors think?”
One of the movie’s true gifts is keeping you guessing until the end. It’s hard not to get caught up in the paranoia of would-be detectives investigating the Klopeks. For one thing, it’s pure conjecture, tied together by far more red herrings than actual leads. But on the other hand, filtered through the shielded lens of people who have nothing to do but speculate on the lives of their neighbors, something really seems to be next door.
What that something is is never really clear. Are the new neighbors the Manson family? Or could there be something supernatural at work? It’s a great pleasure to realize that you might be on a wild goose chase and move on anyway.
The men will be the boys in The Burbs
Linked to anxieties about the rise of suburban life, there was a crisis of masculinity in America. And The Burbs does not let us forget the direct link between these two emerging crises, both born of a postwar economic boom and a desire for peace and national normality.
Suburban anxieties are tied to a masculinity crisis at The Burbs.
Ray and his eccentric (male) neighbors represent three very different types of modern man. Ray is trying to be the well adjusted professional parent. He supports his family, plays ball with his son, and watches Jeopardy with his wife at night. His best friend in the neighborhood, Art, is a vulgar man who complains about his wife and makes fun of Ray for taking orders from his wife. And Mark, across the street, is a Vietnam veteran who sees enemy combatants everywhere despite his almost serene surroundings.
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The late and great Carrie Fisher is the perfect choice to play Ray’s wife Carol. She dominates the eyeroll, watching her husband return to a boyish form, playing fantasy with his friends. And the trio is really out of his league. There is a clear feeling that they just need something, anything! – to occupy them and make them feel like they have a purpose in this world. That’s what drives them, at least as much as anything the Klopek seem to be doing.
The youth of the neighborhood illustrate it perfectly. Teen movie icon Corey Feldman represents his entire generation of postwar kids who have nothing to do but drink, party and order pizza on his quiet, secluded street. Watching local grown men lose their minds is better entertainment than they’ve had in a long time. And they watch the drama unfold, literally cheering, comfortably separated like, well, us in the audience.
But then maybe the Klopeks have chosen the suburbs as the perfect place to get their way. Everyone is so focused on living their own American Dream. They may allow good manners to keep them from looking too closely at the family that just moved in. And that’s the fun of it all.
Look at the Burbs in Peacock. It is worth your time.