Does your neighborhood have a Boo Radley house? You know, that abode that no one ever seems to go into or come out of? My childhood neighborhood does. I have been walking past this place for over thirty years and it never changes. It’s always been a seventies-era mint green, the yard is always overgrown, and the entryway is a yawning black hole. The thick privacy curtains in the windows are the only things about the house that aren’t frozen in time; their dull cream is gradually changing to a mottled rust.
I’m thoroughly convinced the inhabitants, if there are any, must shop in the dead of night like Langley Collyer or have things delivered. I’m also thoroughly convinced there’s nothing nefarious going on, just average people keeping to themselves for whatever reason.
Whatever the case, whoever is in there is probably glad their neighbors aren’t as nosy as the folks in 1989’s The ‘Burbs, a cautionary and uneven tale about Mayfield Place, a seemingly idyllic neighborhood where no one really minds their own business.
On one hand, this closeness is a good thing. All the neighbors know each other, they all look out for each other, and they like to hang out or at least they tolerate each other. They all have their habits, mostly involving picking up the paper and walking the dog. One guy, Mark Rumsfeld (Bruce Dern) ritualistically raises the flag on a mechanized pole every day, saluting while his gorgeous, scantily-clad wife, Bonnie (Wendy Schaal) looks on and teenager Ricky (Corey Feldman) ogles Bonnie from next door.
When a new family, the Klopeks, move in, everyone is suspicious because no one ever sees them and strange sounds come from the basement in the wee sma’s. Anytime anyone does emerge from the house for any reason the entire block stops and stares. It’s like a very slow train wreck.
Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) is not overly concerned about the mysterious happenings next door. He’s on vacation. He wants to lie around the house, not go anywhere, and just be super chill. His buddy, Art (Rick Ducommun) has different ideas, though. He comes over for breakfast on Ray’s first morning off, and not only polishes off three pancakes, a ton of sausage, a giant pile of bacon, and four eggs, but half a rack of leftover ribs. In between bites Art speculates to Ray about the Klopeks. He and Ray’s son, Dave (Cory Danzinger) both think these people are grave diggers.
One dark and stormy night, a sedan emerges from the driveway. A pale, grizzled teenager gets out, stuffs a giant Hefty bag in a trash can and then whacks the heck out of it with a garden hoe. Ray, Art, and Mark watch the proceedings from behind a row of dumpsters, their eyes out on sticks.
From there, these three guys decide to stake out the Klopek house, devising elaborate schemes in which Art sneaks into the backyard, with Rumsfeld surveying the scene armed with animal crackers. In between plans Art regales Ray with his new theory that the Klopeks are Satanists and Ray watches slasher films on TV. Naturally, he starts having weird nightmares.
Ray’s longsuffering wife, Carol (Carrie Fisher) watches all of this and tries to rein Ray in before spearheading a neighborly visit to the Klopek dwelling. She and Bonnie bravely tromp up to the Klopeks’ front door armed with a plate of brownies and Ray and Mark in tow. What’s behind that front door is anything and nothing to be expected.
Put it this way: Does anyone expect sardine-topped pretzels? No? Didn’t think so.
Everything that happens in The ‘Burbs is blown up larger than life. When Ray, Art and Mark contemplate infiltrating the Klopek abode the theme from Patton trumpets in the background. The film knows when to be dark and stormy, such as the scene in which the characters spy three shadowy figures digging holes in the Klopek backyard. And black humor is handled tastefully, which is more than can be said for some films (Looking at you, National Lampoon.).
Probably the funniest parts belong to Ricky, who lives his life on the front porch. He loves his neighborhood. It’s way better than any TV or movie. He even brings a date one night when Ray, Mark, and Art are up to their schemes, and pretty soon his other friends show up as well because Ricky doesn’t exaggerate. Mayfield Place is quite a show, especially when something blows up. Add a pizza and it makes for a fun evening.
The problem is that the total package doesn’t work as well as it could have–the film can come across as obnoxious and in the end it all falls apart. When everything is over the top it sets the viewer up for a great big nonplus when all is said and done.
Plus there’s no chemistry to speak of between Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher. I like Carrie. I like Tom as an actor. I just don’t picture them together because they seem more like roommates than husband and wife. I think the reason for this is that Carrie Fisher was such a wit, and she needed someone who could play back to that in more of a face-off kind of way. And yes, I’m thinking of how she played scenes with Harrison Ford and why that was so effective. He was Carrie’s equal. Tom Hanks is no slouch in the ad-lib department, but his Ray Peterson is too passive. On the other hand, this may have been due to the fact that Hanks’ star was on the ascendent in 1989; maybe he felt a little gunshy.
Another thing is it would have been great to have Ricky and his friends make commentary on the goings-on like a teenaged Greek chorus. Ricky gives us the basics, but mostly he sits around waiting for things to happen and then laying on the air guitar when they do.
But oh well. We can’t have everything, right?
The ‘Burbs is a fun movie that might have been funnier, and the best part is recluses and their neighbors alike can rejoice that none of the people in it are real. At least, we hope they’re not.
Another review is coming up tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…
UPDATE (October 10, 2021): So. The Boo Radley house has been boarded up now for the past few months. Well, the front door has, anyway, with an ominous notice reading: OCCUPYING THESE PREMISES IS A MISDEMEANOR stapled to the plywood. Its foreboding appearance was only slightly softened by a cheery rainbow-colored wicker hamper on the front walk.
If that wasn’t mind-blowing enough, today when my son and I went past the house, we noticed the yard denuded of foliage and the curtains open. Yeah. Open. They’ve never been open. Never. Ever.
My teenager, who’s much less burdened with accumulated prejudice than I am, strode right up and peered in, and I, still fearing my imagined Boo Radley might be lurking about, nervously followed.
I don’t know what I expected. Mold? Rats the size of cats? Crash test dummies? Who knows. My son saw a white T-shirt hanging in a closet and so much paper and cardboard it was impossible to make out a floor. There was a dresser in a hallway and undiscernible tchotckes spilling out of closets.
Too sheepish to notice much, I sidled up to a window myself, only to be met with the sight of about a dozen greeting cards taped to a bedroom wall, the focal point of which read, “Have A Wonderful Valentine’s Day!”
I backed away, jolted out of my nerves and curiosity by this sudden reminder that a life had existed behind these curtains. Whoever was in there was loved and deserved to be left alone. I got us out of there as quickly as possible, feeling as if I had intruded on a private moment.
Driving past the house later, though, my embarrassment turned to confusion when we noticed the curtains had been pulled shut again. There were also two ancient lawn chairs positioned chummily next to the boarded-up front door as if someone was getting ready to have a beer with a friend or something. I’m not even kidding.
Errrr…the house is supposedly empty and uninhabitable, so who’s closing the curtains? And who’s setting out lawn chairs?
I know this looks dramatic and made up, but it’s all true. We may never know what the deal is with that place, which is OK. Some places are meant to be mysterious, and regardless of what happens next, the Boo Radley house may always remain the Boo Radley house.
The ‘Burbs is available on DVD from Amazon.
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