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‘The ’Burbs’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 24, 1989

TOM HANKS wants to spend his vacation at home -- in "The 'Burbs." No work, no organized trips, no stress. Just the TV, a fridge full of beers, peace and quiet.

And what does he get? A Joe Dante movie.

Actually, not even a good Joe Dante movie (like "The Howling" or "Gremlins"). Although it initially flares up on high-concept firewood, this caper about nasty neighbors and curious klutzes gradually dies down into isolated crackles, sputters and phuts.

Mainly, "Burbs" has no pilot light. Don't expect to drop in on Hanks' improvisational zest (as demonstrated in "Big" and "Punchline"). As Ray Peterson, he's just one tired Household Bounder, suffering the slings and arrows of arrested playtime, while doggedly doubting that next door's friendless Klopeks (including funny little guy Henry Gibson and "Letterman" grouchball regular Brother Theodore) are the body-burying devil worshipers the other neighbors say they are.

The characters, apparently culled from screenwriter Dana ("Laverne and Shirley") Olsen's all-purpose-zany file, include Hanks' wife (in the expositional sense only), the harping-but-loving Carrie Fisher; war-games wacko Bruce Dern ("In Southeast Asia," he deadpans, "we'd call this kind of thing {pause} bad karma"); and Dern's scantily clad house-bimbo Wendy Schaal (the doomed wife in the made-for-TV psychodrama "Fatal Vision"). Then there's nosy boor Rick Ducommun (he has his gawky moments); toupee'd sitcom antique Gale Gordon, whose "Chem-Lawn" service ensures the street's best lawn (while his trained pooch ensures ruin on others); and finally, professional kid Corey Feldman ("Stand by Me," "The Lost Boys," etc.), whose idea of a party is pizza, heavy metal and just plain watching the neighbors.

Will Hanks discover the truth about the Klopeks? Why did the last house on this Hell's half-acre burn to the ground? What exactly are the Klopeks barbecueing in the basement? What's happened to the suddenly missing Gordon? And will Hanks ever get out of his pajamas?

These and other not-so-burning questions get answered, but their importance wanes along with the other creative embers. " 'Burbs' " attraction is the initial rush of Dante's suburban Inferno, where spaghetti westerns tangle with gothic horror flicks while the neighbors watch with mouths agape. "I love this street," says Feldman, but it's late, late in the movie, and given what has happened -- or what hasn't, maybe -- his declaration doesn't quite sit right.

THE 'BURBS (PG) -- Area theaters.

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