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Watch Tom Hanks in one of cinema's best portraits of suburbia on Peacock
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Suburbia has been a popular target of Hollywood for nearly half a century. Movies like The Stepford Wives, Blue Velvet, and Pleasantville have offered some of our definitive reference points for American suburbs, not to mention early sitcoms like I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and The Honeymooners. But the nearly-forgotten 1989 comedy The Burbs deserves a spot high up on the list, and luckily you can watch it on Peacock.
Just as we worry about the social effects of gentrification now, families leaving cities for the suburbs was once a major source of anxiety. The Burbs plays with that anxiety, using it as the backdrop for a compelling mystery. Blending social satire, slapstick comedy, and some light horror, it’s a smart and fun watch, worthy of revisiting.
We recommend you check it out on Peacock.
What is The Burbs about?
In The Burbs, Ray (Tom Hanks) is an incredibly, almost painfully regular guy. Trying to enjoy a bit of time off work from his undoubtedly humdrum job, he’s decided to spend a week at home in the suburbs and kick back a bit.
But he can’t fully let himself relax, because something isn’t quite right about his new neighbors. The Klopeks are rarely ever seen, except for the youngest member of the family, who comes out only to collect the paper before scurrying back in. And at night, their house emits weird noises and bright lights that can’t be explained.
Ray isn’t alone in his growing unease. Luckily — or maybe not — every house on the street has its own set of weirdoes. So Ray has plenty of allies.
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Growing increasingly suspicious, Ray and his neighbors Art (Rick Ducommun) and Mark (Bruce Dern) decide to investigate. They’re shocked to see the young Klopek drive from the family garage down to the curb, where he struggles getting a heavy trash bag into a garbage can before retreating to the house again. What’s in the bad? Making things even fishier, another neighbor seems to have gone missing.
Now, the three are hooked, and Ray’s staycation becomes an investigation, with the three men convinced the Klopeks are killers, disposing of bodies in their basement. And they won’t stop until they get some answers.
Rear Window meets Leave It to Beaver
There’s something deeply clever about a paranoid mystery set in suburbia. It allows you to dig through all the little peculiarities of these manufactured communities.
By crafting a story reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, about amateur sleuths investigating a crime they may or may not have witnessed, director Joe Dante cranks the trope of the gossipy, busybody neighbor to 11. Dante’s background in low-budget horror also helped with some of the film’s odder imagery, including an absurd dream sequence in which all of Ray’s worst fears are confirmed.
The film also pokes at some of the more unsavory sides of keeping track of your neighbors’ comings and goings. There’s something innocent and comical about Ray commenting on his neighbors’ lawns and where their dogs poop. But his and everyone else’s preoccupation with where the Klopeks are from has darker implications. “Is that a Slavic name?” he wonders aloud about the Klopeks, with a clear mistrust of outsiders.
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The unwritten rules of the suburbs keep the amateur sleuths in check too though. They’re also being watched, after all. You can’t just march over and root through the garbage in plain sight — as the apt saying goes, “What would the neighbors think?”
One of the film’s real gifts is in keeping you guessing until the very end. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the paranoia of the would-be-detectives investigating the Klopeks. On the one hand, it’s pure conjecture, held together by far more red herrings than real leads. But on the other, filtered through the sheltered lens of people with nothing to do but speculate about their neighbors’ lives, something really does seem to be up next door.
What that something is is never actually clear. Are the new neighbors the Manson family? Or could there even be something supernatural afoot? There’s a distinct pleasure in realizing you might be on a wild goose chase and going along with it anyway.
Men will boys in The Burbs
Tied to anxieties about the rise of suburban living was a crisis of masculinity in America. And The Burbs doesn’t let us forget the direct link between these two emerging crises, both born out of a post-war economic boom and a desire for peace and national normalcy.
Suburban anxieties are tied to a crisis of masculinity in The Burbs.
Ray and his oddball (male) neighbours represent three very distinct types of modern man. Ray is trying to be the well-adjusted professional family man. He supports his family, plays catch with his son, and watches Jeopardy with his wife at night. His best friend in the neighborhood, Art, is a crass everyman, who complains about his wife and makes fun of Ray for taking orders from his wife. And Mark across the street is a Vietnam vet who sees enemy combatants everywhere despite his near-serene surroundings.
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The late, great Carrie Fisher is the perfect choice as Ray’s beleaguered wife, Carol. She’s mastered the eyeroll, watching her husband reverting to a boyish form, playing make-believe with his buddies. And the trio really is out of their depth. There’s a clear sense that they just need something — anything! — to occupy them and make them feel like they have purpose in this world. That’s what drives them, at least as much as anything the Klopeks appear to be up to.
The youths of the neighborhood illustrate this perfectly. Teen movie icon Corey Feldman stands in for his whole post-war generation of kids with nothing to do but drink, party, and order pizza on their sleepy, isolated street. Watching the local grown men lose their minds is better entertainment than they’ve had in a while. And they watch the drama unfold, literally cheering, comfortably detached just like, well, us in the audience.
But then, maybe the Klopeks have chosen the burbs as the perfect place to get away with murder. Everyone’s so focused on living their own American Dream. Maybe they’ll let good manners stop them from looking too closely at the family that just moved in. And that’s the fun of it all.
Watch the Burbs on Peacock. It’s well worth your while.