How “The ‘Burbs” Predicted the Death of the Suburban Fantasy

Tom Hanks may have gotten snubbed this year by the Academy, which failed to nominate him for his exceptional work in Captain Phillips, but he remains one of our most celebrated dramatic actors. Many of his younger fans, however, might not realize that before he turned to serious roles, he was just a goofy comic actor. Much of his work from this period has been forgotten. It is a shame because from 1988 to 1991 – in that period after his sophomoric comedies but before his big turn to drama –  he made Big, Joe vs. the Volcano, Turner and Hooch (which Hanks referred to on Inside the Actor’s Studio as “some of [his] best work”), and Punchline. Each of these films featured performances that only Hanks could give at that particular moment in career, when he had the chops for serious work but was still interested in making people laugh. But there is another film from this era that almost always gets forgotten in discussions of the Hanks canon, and it deserves more recognition: The ‘Burbs.

As we have approached that film’s twenty-fifth anniversary (it opened February 17, 1989), there has been a slight critical re-evaluation of the film, which got a mixed reception from critics upon its release and was only a minor hit at the box office. Indiewire recently praised it for its “trenchant critique of the suburbs and all its conformist trappings.” Film School Rejects got a little more specific, noting that it was “a nice way to end a decade filled with a nostalgia for the simple 1950s idea of suburbia.” In actuality, The ‘Burbs was a political film that subverted this nostalgia that was perpetuated by both the Reagan administration and Hollywood. In the 25 years after its release, nostalgia for the American suburban fantasy would erode and reveal darker realities; you could argue that The ‘Burbs predicted its demise.

Salon’s David Sirota wrote an entire book about this phenomenon called Back to Our Future: How the 80s Explain the World We Live in Now. In it, he cites the 1980s as the decade that birthed “an entire industry organized around idealized nostalgia, and particularly mid-century, pre-1965 schmaltz.” Movies like Diner, Stand by Me, and Hoosiers spoke to Americans mired in the difficult choices of adulthood longing for a simpler time. Grease, which caricatured the style of the decade perhaps more than any other film, became a hit just before the ’80s began. The lead character in Dirty Dancing, a massive 1987 hit, pines for those times “before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came…and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my Dad.” Even Superman used images of an idyllic, small-town (presumably post-war) upbringing to create the ultimate American hero.

Of course, President Reagan traded on that imagery, as well, peppering his campaign speeches with language that sought to build up the post-war period in American minds and erase the stain of Vietnam from their hearts. Listening to his speeches, it was if Vietnam and the turmoil of the ‘60s and ‘70s plain never happened. This is from a speech during his 1980 campaign:

Not so long ago, we emerged from a world war. Turning homeward at last, we built a grand prosperity and hopes, from our own success and plenty, to help others less fortunate. Our peace was a tense and bitter one, but in those days, the center seemed to hold.

With the nostalgia business booming, a quiet, subversive backlash emerged in film. Blue Velvet showed a seedy underbelly to the idyllic suburban existence, portrayed literally in the film’s opening sequence in which the camera lingers on a calm, suburban street, only to dive beneath the ground to find grubs and insects battling to survive. Back to the Future both reinforced and subverted this nostalgia, returning its 1980s teenager to a simpler time, while also hinting at the twisted, Freudian impulses that lay beneath Reagan’s false vision for America.

But The ‘Burbs tackled the discrepancy between what Reagan sold and what average Americans in the ‘80s experienced with unique flair. Tom Hanks plays Ray Petersen, a suburban husband and dad who takes the week off from work and decides to stay at home and relax instead of taking his family on vacation. Well, he intends to relax, but it’s not so easy. His annoying neighbor Art (Rick Ducommun) is convinced that Ray’s new next-door neighbors, the mysterious Klopek family, is up to no good. What’s his evidence? They don’t mow their lawn, they stay in their house, and Art is convinced he has heard some weird noises coming from their basement. In other words, they don’t conform to the prescribed suburban existence. From this he deduces that the Klopeks must be murderers. With nothing to distract Ray from Art’s conspiracy theories, they band together to begin investigating the new neighbors.

Ray’s suspicion of his neighbors is reflective of the darkness that lay beneath the idyllic vision of America perpetuated in politics and the media. Art offers the perfect metaphor for this halfway through the film, when he reminds Ray of something that happened when they were kids: a local drugstore employee named Skip – the kind who wore a paper hat and served soda pop to the neighborhood kids – was found to have murdered his entire family and buried them in his basement. As Art tells it, the smell coming from his basement was inescapable, but everyone was too polite to ask questions. The story is a metaphor for the social darkness that suburban families didn’t speak of in the 1950s, be it the struggles of blacks to achieve equality, the existential fears of nuclear annihilation, or PTSD suffered by Mad Men-era husbands and fathers. The ‘Burbs represents this conflict between Reagan’s sunny vision of America and the darker feelings that were planted in the 1950s and were then – in the 1980s – beginning to blossom.

The characters that make up Ray’s team of amateur investigators neatly illustrate how the fantasy was eroding. Art is a portly lay-about whose mind is teeming with conspiracy theories. Of course, the very notion of “conspiracy theory” was not prevalent until the Kennedy assassination, an event that marked the end of the period Reagan sought to re-create. Art’s suspicious nature seems founded in TV shows popular in the 1980s such as America’s Most Wanted and Cops that highlighted the crimes of ordinary people and turned ordinary viewers into potential crime-solvers.

Then there is Rumsfeld (Bruce Dern), a retired Army Lieutenant who never left Vietnam behind. Rumsfeld sees everything in military terms and relishes the opportunity to dust off some of his old gear and lead his men on a secret mission. He is clearly suffering from PTSD, and the choice of actor is noteworthy. Dern, of course, starred just eleven years earlier in Coming Home, an anti-war picture that was the first Vietnam-era film to deal with PTSD. His presence here is a nod to the film’s counter-cultural subtext.

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Then, lastly, there is Ray himself, who simply wants to believe that Reagan’s time machine to the ‘50s is real. He wants nothing but a peaceful and quiet existence, and he tries at every turn to resist the invitations from his nutty neighbors to join them in their conspiracies and amateur military operations. In the end, Ray not only joins their little team but, sadly, becomes their leader. After their investigations go awry and the neighbors’ house is burned down, Ray sees the error of his ways:

Although the filmmakers undercut this message with a surprise ending – the Klopeks were murderers after all – Ray’s words leave an indelible impression that is worth considering in its political context. With eloquent speeches and administrative flourishes, Reagan painted a beautiful fantasy of suburban life – the way we remembered it – and the movies provided the images. But The ‘Burbs illustrates the dangers of such a fantasy when it ignores a nation’s very recent and imperfect history.

Twenty-five years later, time has caught up with the film. No one thinks of the suburbs as a place to escape crime, not anymore. Major American cities seem safer than ever, while the names of sleepy towns like Littleton and Newtown now conjur up images of ghastly violence. We live day-to-day with the possibility that our next door neighbor might be on the verge of a killing spree, so if The ‘Burbs were released today, it wouldn’t seem subversive or satirical at all. And that’s scary.

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3 thoughts on “How “The ‘Burbs” Predicted the Death of the Suburban Fantasy

  1. Great piece. I always think about The Burbs and Poltergeist in the same vein. While The Burbs deals with the collapse of suburbia, Poltergesit skewers the pro-patriotic rhetoric that television networks promote. The natives have their revenge on the whiteys who stole their land in the name of religion and political freedoms. The land of the free and the home of the brave, indeed.

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