On the “Tom Hanks Scale Of Greatness” the version that usually tops the list is the Loveable Everyman Hanks, the romantic star of Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail or the charismatic presence supporting a larger ensemble in the excellent women’s baseball favourite A League Of Their Own or the otherwise ordinary Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. This is the Hanks we all know and love – an effortlessly charming guy next door we can relate to, funny without being over the top and handsome without being unapproachable. It’s the version of the actor that best utilizes the natural likeable appeal of the man himself, able to bridge the gap between demographics and audiences with a mere grin.
From there it splits into arguably his two most successful categories – Serious Actor Hanks and American Impersonator Hanks. Both marked him firmly in the award-winning category, the former through emotionally exhaustive turns in Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away, the latter with an increasing number of real life roles he’s been able to tweak with subtle Hanksian brilliance. The first Oscar win came with a mid-career turn in Philadelphia and continued in the following year’s Forrest Gump, while American Impersonator Hanks has since become a staple of his later career with the likes of Saving Mr. Banks, Captain Phillips and Sully. He’s never been a chameleon in the mould of Daniel Day Lewis or Cate Blanchett, but managed to merge his latent movie star appeal with real world worries like no other actor in history.
Down the very bottom of the scale sits the most underappreciated version of all – Pure Comedy Hanks. It was the era that began his big screen career and peaked with yet another Oscar nominated performance in Big. This was the youthful, energized Hanks stealing scenes with a subtle genius no comedic star has managed since. He was never one to grandstand in the way that has become the norm these days, a formula that resulted from Will Ferrell’s hilariously absurdist excess. Hanks was a serious actor from the outset, only one with incredible comic timing. Ferrell’s greatness stems from his ability to stand out from whatever film he’s in, while Hanks is the exact opposite – his characters are a product of the world they live in and his comedy a result of the situation itself.
The ‘Burbs is Pure Comedy Hanks at his very best. Set entirely on a suburban cul-de-sac and inhabited by an assortment of bored and strange characters, it pairs America’s favourite leading man with the criminally underrated director of Gremlins, Innerspace and The Howling – the legendary Joe Dante. Dante’s cartoonish horror sensibilities are a perfect fit for this story of a man growing increasingly suspicious of his creepy new neighbours the Klopeks, with Hanks in the lead role of Ray Peterson – a man with a simple desperation to spend his entire holiday time in his robe at home watching TV. Teaming with two neighbours in Rick Ducommun’s paranoid friend Art and the brilliant Bruce Dern as militant lunatic Rumsfield, Ray sets about proving any and all suspicions correct using increasingly intrusive methods.
Wedged between the universally beloved Big and his later Oscar winners, The ‘Burbs is regularly forgotten in the massive Hanks filmography, a weird outlier in a list of classics and family favourites despite its relative box office success. Amongst the comparative safety of most of his more popular outings though, this is an oddball gem. Dante revels in the ordinary set-ups nestled amid the creepy ridiculousness, emphasizing the disturbing Klopek house sitting between the immaculately maintained suburban households either side in the same way Ray initially stands out as the sole voice of reason amongst his irrational friends. He would go on to helm a feature length version of Looney Tunes to disappointing results, but his love of the zany antics of those Warner Bros. characters shines through in almost everything he’s worked on. There is a demented glee about each one of his films, an exaggerated reality that manages to balance the line between the over the top and the ordinary.
Dante manages to sprinkle the film with the mundanities of everyday suburban life, from the casual gossiping to the arguments over stray dog faeces. He paints a picture of a modern Pleasantville but sprinkles it with hints of the supernatural, offsetting it’s horror movie disturbances with Ray’s general dissatisfaction in life. As the mysterious happenings from over his fence continue Ray’s suspicions grow, leading to an all-out surveillance and investigation before one of the more surreal endings imaginable. After a gradual build-up Dante flips it all entirely in truly bizarre fashion, turning Art’s delusional ramblings into an insane finale.
The core cast are a collection of character actors and 80s icons and all equally excellent. Ducommun and Dern are the perfect foils to Ray’s relative straight man, while Corey Feldman is as charmingly goofy as in any of his best roles. Carrie Fisher is given little to play with as Ray’s disapproving wife Carol, but the combined eccentricities of the cast of Klopeks – Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore and Courtney Gains as Dr. Werner Klopek, Uncle Reuben Klopek and Hans Klopek respectively – almost steal the movie completely.
This is Hanks’ show though, and he runs it like a master conductor. Ray begins the movie trying desperately to avoid the world at large, resolute in his refusal to leave the house and dismissive of Art’s conspiracy theories. He’s a typical suburbanite, a loving husband and father with a great house and sparkling neighbourhood, yet completely bored and disgruntled with his current state. It’s Pure Comedy Hanks is at his absolute best, especially during a mid-film visit between Ray, Rumsfield, their wives and the Klopeks, with Ray valiantly attempting to eat a hideous pretzel/sardine concoction provided by their neighbourly hosts. It’s a masterclass in awkwardness and discomfort and arguably the greatest comedic scene of Hanks’ career.
Pure Comedy Hanks appeared a couple of times immediately after, before disappearing completely after the smash hit double of Sleepless In Seattle and Philadelphia in 1993. He’s shown up in the odd funny movie here and there since, but never in the outright comedy mould of his early years. He’s one of the most consistent performers in history and holds arguably the top career strike-rate of any Hollywood superstar ever. After all these years though, the time seems right for a return – one that would surely sit alongside Jordan’s 1995 comeback on the list of modern day phenomena. For now we have the hilariously offbeat The ‘Burbs to bide our time. An endlessly re-watchable classic hidden by the bigger hits of its director and a catalogue of mind-boggling successes from the American Everyman himself.