A Cult Tom Hanks Movie Is Him At His Weirdest

By Nathan Kamal | 1 month ago

tom hanks

Tom Hanks exudes normalcy. Over the course of his long and accomplished career, he has managed to create the impression that he is the modern American every-man, the average Joe who finds himself caught in unimaginable situations and still manages to retain a core of himself. Of course, Hanks is anything but normal. He is one of the most talented actors living, and one of the most celebrated. He is rich and famous and powerful at a level most humans could never conceive of. He is pretty obsessed with typewriters, which definitely is not normal. Hanks’ greatest performance is the spell he has had over audiences for the last 40-plus years in which we think “hey, that curly-haired guy is kind of like me.” When Hanks steps out of this niche, things get a little dicier. For example, playing a cold-blooded Prohibition-era mob assassin broke this suspension of disbelief, as did him playing the evilest possible version of Colonel Sanders. However, the best filmmakers find a way to use Tom Hanks’ inherent normalcy to expose the weirdness underneath. Joe Dante’s 1989 black comedy The ‘Burbs is one of the best of these. 

tom hanks

The ‘Burbs stars Tom Hanks as Ray Peterson (even the name is boringly normal), an average American suburb dweller taking a week off from work. Despite his wife Carol’s (Carrie Fisher in perfect exasperation mode) worries that him sitting around the house for a week will lead to him getting stir crazy, he insists that a trip to the lake would be more stressful. The instant assumption that Ray is planning to take a trip to the lake becomes a minor running joke in the movie, and also builds the subtext that this unnamed neighborhood is a place of complete predictability. Except that it really isn’t. This is a neighborhood of freaks, and as much as Tom Hanks wants to believe otherwise, he is just as much one of them. 

tom hanks

The basic premise of The ‘Burbs is that this picture-perfect, cookie-cutter suburb has one creepy old house in it and the neighborhoods can’t get it out of their heads that there must be something freaky about the mysterious, vaguely-foreign newcomers, the Klopek family. Tom Hanks finds himself drawn into an investigation of weird noises and lights coming from the Klopek place at night. One hapless, friendly lunk of a neighbor Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun, stealing the show) is introduced trying to get rid of some pesky crows by shooting them with a rifle, then elbowing his way into breakfast at the Petersons. Another neighbor, Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern in typically intense mode) is a highly-strung Vietnam vet, and yet a third is the endlessly cheerful rocker-type teen Ricky (Corey Feldman). Somehow, this collection of weird misfits semi-led by Tom Hanks considers themselves the height of normality and investigates the odd house in the neighborhood. 

Joe Dante directed The ‘Burbs from a script by Dana Olsen (who cameos as a policeman later in the film), which was heavily inspired by the writer’s childhood in a deceptively quiet neighborhood. Like many films of the 1980s, The ‘Burbs examines the odd nature of the American suburb, the conformity of which is the perfect conceal for odd characters and strange lives. Dante found the perfect avatar in Tom Hanks of a man trying against his will to not get swept up in the weirdness buried just underneath the surface of the place he calls home, and Hanks plays it perfectly. His slowly-building exasperation with Art and Mark’s increasingly wild suspicions about the Klopeks is perfectly balanced against his own visible fear and fascination, plus his desire to just take a week off. 

By the time Tom Hanks manages to enter the Klopek house and encounters a family of gothic grotesques played by legendary straight man Henry Gibson, cult comedian Brother Theodore, and the redheaded hench-kid from Children of the Corn (Courtney Gains), things have gone off the rails. Joe Dante was brought into Hollywood as a protege of Steven Spielberg, and their shared vision of the bizarre, creepy utopia of the suburb is on full display here. The ‘Burbs was shot on the same Universal Studios set as The New Leave It to Beaver, and it shows. Despite the eventual discoveries of Satanic rituals, cannibalism, and secret backyard graves, you can’t completely take the normalcy out of the suburb. Or out of Tom Hanks.