'The 'Burbs,' 'The Watch' & How Tom Hanks Changed His Career

07/25/2012 03:07 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012
  • Mike Ryan Senior Entertainment Writer, The Huffington Post

the burbs

This weekend, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill join forces to defeat a presence that threatens their moderately sized suburban city in The Watch. In 1989, Tom Hanks, Rick Ducommun, Bruce Dern and Corey Feldman did the same thing in The 'Burbs. Sure, one major difference between the two films is that aliens are the threat in The Watch, as opposed to family of serial killers in The 'Burbs -- semantics! -- but the general tone of suburban boredom is present in both. Regardless, more than anything, this is a good excuse to write about The 'Burbs and a very fascinating time in Tom Hanks' career.

There's a stretch from 1984-1990 -- before Tom Hanks started making Good Movies -- in which he starred in The Most Hilarious Stretch Of Movies Ever Made By One Actor. (I capitalized that as a proper noun only because that title applies only to my opinion, or, perhaps, the opinion of people roughly my age.) I mean, look at this run: Splash, Bachelor Party, The Man With One Red Shoe, Volunteers, The Money Pit, Dragnet, Big, Turner & Hooch, The 'Burbs and Joe Versus the Volcano.

(Between those years, the only other movies that Hanks starred in were Every Time We Say Goodbye, Nothing in Common and Punchline -- the latter two were decent enough, but for different reasons. )

Of that list, only Big (in which Hanks received his first Academy Award nomination) and Splash would, by conventional standpoints, be considered "good." For a human being who was between the ages of 9 and 15 during those particular years, these movies were The Most Hilarious Stretch Of Movies Ever Made By One Actor.

Now, what was great about these movies (and I'm sure why Hanks eventually became bored with them) is that Hanks pretty much played the same character in each of them: A nice guy (to varying degrees) who was prone to wacky emotional outbursts when he became frustrated.

Or, once, even prone to performing a rap song.

The 'Burbs came near the end of this phase of Hanks' career. In The 'Burbs, Hanks plays Ray Peterson, a resident of Hinkley Hills (as opposed to The Watch's Glenview), who becomes suspicious that his new neighbors may be burying bodies in their backyard. Enlisting the help of his fellow cul-de-sac residents, he is proven correct.

Directed by Joe Dante, Hanks' character was essentially the same as in his past movies to that point -- "nice guy" -- but, certainly, this was a much darker movie than Hanks had been a part of before. Almost a bridge, if you will, to the edgier or more serious roles that Hanks would become famous for in the '90s. After Joe Versus the Volcano was released in March of 1990 (I can still remember an advertisement for Joe Versus the Volcano proclaiming it "The funniest movie of the '90s!" -- this wouldn't last), The Most Hilarious Stretch Of Movies Ever Made By One Actor officially came to an end. Tom Hanks was 33 years old.

As I type, Ben Stiller is 46 years old. Vince Vaughn is 42 years old. This isn't a statement on Stiller or Vaughn still making fairly straightforward comedies -- and both have tried to go the serious route in the past -- but more about just how remarkable it is that Hanks pulled off the switch. I mean, is there really much difference between Stiller starring in a Night of the Museum movie and Hanks starring opposite a dog? (And it wasn't easy for Hanks: His first role, post-Joe Versus the Volcano was Bonfire of the Vanities which almost derailed this new era of Hanks before it even started.) This doesn't seem lost on Stiller, who, in a recent New Yorker profile, envisions the upcoming The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as his Forrest Gump.

Hanks was so successful with this career turn, it's odd to think that he was ever in a movie like The Man With One Red Shoe, let alone star in a series of these type of movies. But, it is interesting that soon after The 'Burbs -- an edgy movie about the restlessness of the suburbs -- Hanks, himself, would become restless with his career. And, now, we have Stiller staring this weekend in a not-quite-as-edgy-but-more-action-packed version of the same formula. One year before, he, too, embarks on what he hopes brings a new chapter of his career.

Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. He laughs every time he watches The Money Pit. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.