Finite Focus: Once Upon a Time in The Suburbs (The ‘Burbs)

theburbs-onesheetMuch like the underrated (but culty) Joe Vs. The Volcano (Finite Focus here), this late 1980s Tom Hanks comedy is, for what it aims to be, a perfect film. Perhaps labeling it a Tom Hanks vehicle is a complete misunderstanding however, it after all is from one of the great referential yet original filmmakers (move over The Coens and Quentin Tarantino): Joe Dante. Because comedy tends not to get people as fired up as hard hitting drama, Joe Dante‘s resume tends to be overlooked as one of the superb modern re-purposers of cinema. The ‘Burbs is his comedy remake of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window (much as Piranha is to Jaws, and Matinee is to cold-war B-science fiction and William Castle pictures of the 1950s) where it is not a mere simple use of the concept, but rather an organic and comedic entity unto itslef.

Joe Dante and writer Dana Olsen throw everything into the film which reaches between The Twilight Zone, Patton, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2!) and I Love Lucy. In fact, this brilliant sequence goes out of its way to be a Spaghetti Western vignette slowly devolving into slapstick comedy, before ending up pure deadpan. Ray (played by all around every-man and/or the Jimmy Stewart of the 1980s and 1990s: Tom Hanks) and his boorish neighbor Art (stand-up comic Rick Ducommun) work up the nerve to talk to their eccentric neighbors shortly after spotting one of them picking up a newspaper of their porch a month after they’ve moved into the ‘normal’ cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Chicago. The two of them working up the courage is predicated upon Ray’s voyeurism (the key theme here). The stakes are higher than simple curiosity thought, specifically for Ray to not be embarrassed in front of his son. The look upon Rays son’s face after the ensuing fiasco is indeed a priceless one.

Things are played out with a brilliant Ennio Morricone soundtrack piece (the music itself from a Spaghetti Western parody film, the Terrance Hill and Henry Fonda starring My Name is Nobody). Visually things are drawing from the Sergio Leone styled close ups and the great opening from Once Upon a Time in the West. The camera uses an awkward yet anticipatory build-up to the confrontation by zooming in on the squinting eyes of each of the neighbors spying on the proceedings. The capper being a zoom in on the local toy-poodle – which incidentally can squint like Clint. I am not normally a fan of animal reaction shots for cheap laughs, but this one is earned in valid and amusing fashion.

Gliding smoothly into a goofy haunted house set-piece, something The ‘Burbs always threatens to become, (but has so much else going for it in terms of comedic timing and, yes, social commentary on the human existence (however blunt) that it never is simply that), the number on the house flips ominously from 669 to 666 on the first knock, before releasing the bees in a sweet homage to The Exorcist. In the blink of an eye things now flip to an over-the-top physical comedy piece involving Ray and Art clawing off the bugs while their militant neighbor Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern in brilliant self-parody mode who gets a character name that has to be riffing off of the previous Secretary of Defense, a well know political figure, even in 1988 when The ‘Burbs was made) encounters a slippery lawn and a hose-too-short. The look on his face when he reminisces on his Vietnam tour of duty is sublime and while Corey Feldman hams it up (he is sort of the stories narrator and colour commentary), Art spits out a last bee to bring the entire sequence of failed manhood to a perfect close.

Reflecting on the detail of this movie, how objects and soundbytes in the background keep coming to the foreground (nowhere more obvious than a dream sequence later on in the film) that The ‘Burbs is a kissing cousin to the Coen Brother‘s The Big Lebowski. The rewatch value is incredibly high (just look at how this film has remained a Sunday afternoon staple on network and cable channels for almost 20 years) due to the meticulous care injected into every minute detail of the film. The ‘Burbs is a stoner comedy classic (it just so happens that nobody (outside of perhaps Nicky Katt in a tiny cameo) happens to smoke weed in the film) that deserves a bigger cult following that it has.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Matt Gamble

It smells like they are cooking a goddamn cat over there!


Oh I love this film. Such an over looked classic. Great score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Why can't Tom Hanks do these types of films anymore, or just comedy in fact?

Joe Dante is shamefully underrated as a director and it's a damn shame he doesn't do more prolific work.


You've underscored points beautifully.

a) Tom Hanks should drop crap like The Da Vinci Code and do more things like The 'Burbs, Joe Vs., and LadyKillers (actually Charlie Wilson's War was a good lean in that direction…hopefully more of that)

b) Joe Dante should be putting out a film every 18 months or so, there is no reason why this guy should be relegated only to Masters of Horror episodes and whatnot.


c) having watched The 'Burbs last night another thought which I didn't put in the Finite Focus article is that I bet Edgar Wright, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are huge Dante fans, I saw a lot of techniques and humour in the 'Burbs that is reminiscent of Sean of the Dead, Spaced and Hot Fuzz!

Andrew James

As a fan of details, watch The 'burbs with a close eye. There is a lot of comedy going on in "the background" of several scenes and joke references to earlier parts in the film. One of the top 5 comedies of the 80's would not be totally out of line. Every character in this film is, as Kurt said, perfect.

Most of it is all in the delivery:

"I-I've I've never seen that. I've never seen someone drive their garbage down to the street then bang the hell out of it with a stick. I-I've never seen that."


Everything Bruce Dern says is comic gold:

"That's about a 9 on the tension scale Rube"

"Those have been in your Trousers all Day?"

"A Soldiers Way, Saves The Day. I've been trained"

"In Southeast Asia we'd call that sort of thing….[pause]….Bad Karma"

[After fallin' in a hole in the porch and dropping the plate of desserts] "Ah, there go the goddamn Brownies!" (I personally love the delivery of that line, priceless)