The ‘Burbs’: How a Movie on Social Commentary Missed The Mark

Kate McCrea

Staff Writer

In 1989, a little cult film was born. Starring Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schall, Rick Ducommon, Dana Olsen, Courtney Gaines, and Henry Gibson as the mysterious new neighbors, “The ‘Burbs” directed by Joe Dante, was a social commentary on how life in the “burbs wasn’t as peachy and warm apple pie as it seems.” In the opening sequence of the film, we’re treated to just how idyllic this neighborhood seemingly is. From the opening sequence of following Ray’s dog out for his evening walk, we’re introduced to the layout of the neighborhood. Then, in the morning, we’re introduced to all the neighbors, who are a motley crew of seemingly ordinary, everyday, middle-class, white Americans. They go to work, obsess, and I do mean OBSESS, over their lawns, and gossip about the weird new neighbors that no one’s met yet. On the surface, this all seems innocent enough. Wouldn’t we all be curious about a new neighbor that moved in out of nowhere and doesn’t even so much as introduce themselves?

As the film progresses, the neighborhood becomes obsessed with finding out about these new mysterious neighbors, to the point where they plan a military style operation to infiltrate the house when the occupants leave for the day. The antics are funny, and the script is sharp, and even outsiders within the show are almost a Greek chorus in the form of garbage men talking about how cul-de-sacs freak them out because they drive everyone crazy.

In my mind, that’s one of the first signs that this movie was going to be more than just a campy comedy. It produces legitimate criticism and finally digs deeper inti who the true monster in the film is: the “creepy” new neighbors that just keep to themselves but seem a little weird or the American Dream, a standard so high that it’s almost unreachable and in reality is a leash kept on the middle class. The film pits the middle class against lower income families and keeps them fighting each other rather than actually waking up from this materialistic nightmare that has been sold as “keeping up with the Joneses” or the “American Dream,” and pushing for real change in their communities.

Insead, the “ruling class,” or rich, in the nation has them so exhausted chasing this unattainable dream, that average Americans turn on each other because they believe the other person is bringing down their property values, bringing down the standards of the neighborhood, or dangerous simply because they don’t care to conform to the standard. Making the new neighbors, the Klopeks, white Europeans instead of a minority family was a brilliant choice, because instead of being able to just obviously say, hey, the white people are being racist because they don’t like how this family looks or acts (which they still are, it’s just not in your face), it’s a more subtle form of internalized class warfare and racism that most Americans would be horrified to realize exists in the way they act and microaggressions they say or do every day. It’s so ingrained in us as a culture, we’re not even aware of what we’re doing and have to retrain ourselves to stop these behaviors.

Are the Klopeks strange? Yes. Were they actually hurting anyone in an obvious way other than not keeping up the standards? Not that we saw until the end of the film. Sure, weird things happened around the house, and the Klopecks were socially awkward when we finally met them, but you would be as well after realizing the whole neighborhood’s been watching you.

The brilliance of this film is that it shows how ordinary Americans can whip themselves up into a frenzy just over a few conversations with friends about the weird new neighbors. What are they? Why do they keep to themselves? They look so strange. They’re not like us. But why does that make them someone to be feared?

The movie unfortunately never digs deep enough to answer these questions and instead, goes the predictable route of making the Klopeks murderers. Right up until the last minute, the movie feels like it’s going to show how the stress of living up to the American Dream and dealing with the mundane reality of everyday life can slowly eat away at a person’s soul and make them resentful of others; however, this never happens. Overall, I find the movie extremely entertaining, especially if you love camp horror films. There’s definitely a lot of those elements, and they tie in with my point of the mental health strain on keeping up standards. I just wish the movie had gone that extra mile in the ending or even had an alternative ending where the Klopeks weren’t murderers and it was all in the neighbor’s heads the whole time.

I would love to see a modern, updated take of this film, almost Jordan Peele-esque, but still keeping with the theme of white everyday Americans and the lengths they’d go to prove someone’s “not quite right” or “doesn’t belong” because they don’t meet today’s standards.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, What to Watch

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