He's known for his "life is like a box of chocolates" lament, but the same could be said for Tom Hanks's early career. After watching the three films featured in this basic box set, Judge Bill Gibron is convinced that, indeed, you never know what you're going to get—lost gem or misguided mess.
Our reviews of Dragnet (1987) (published June 29th, 1999), Dragnet 1968: Season Two (published July 6th, 2010), Dragnet 1969: Season Three (published December 13th, 2010), Dragnet 1970: Season Four (published April 12th, 2011), and Dragnet 1967: Season One (published September 28th, 2005) are also available.
Just The Facts
How, exactly, did Tom Hanks become one of the most trusted—and gifted—actors in post-modern motion pictures? How did he go from playing a rather unbelievable woman in the TV drag comedy Bosom Buddies to the stoic social symbol featured in Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, and Saving Private Ryan? Is there a way to calculate his career moves, to figure out how he turned motion-picture manure like Volunteers and Bachelor Party into big-budget prestige pictures like Cast Away and The Da Vinci Code? The answer, oddly enough, is located within his back catalog. Over the course of 27 years in the business (yep, you read that right) and countless turns in front of the camera, Hanks has done something that few in present-day Tinseltown get the opportunity to do. He was allowed to fail, to flop around aimlessly from project to project before he found his proper cinematic stature. At the beginning, he was the sarcastic goof, one step away from a slacker and always ready with an ironic rejoinder. Now he's the second coming of Jimmy Stewart, a humble, heroic American man making his way through a world constantly striving to undermine him. Trading on his days as a delightful doofus, Universal has uncorked a trio of his earliest efforts—The Money Pit, Dragnet, and The 'Burbs—and labeled them The Tom Hanks Comedy Favorites Collection. As a window into his past, it's a nice bit of nostalgia. But not every feature from a movie star's legacy holds up over time.
Facts of the Case
Here are the storylines for the three films offered as part of this collection:
The Money Pit (1986)
The 'Burbs (1989)
You really do have to be of a "certain age" to remember the whole Tom Hanks rise, fall, and re-ascension into the ranks of the Hollywood elite. It seemed so strange to us fans of Bosom Buddies to see the one-time TV actor being thrust into one big-screen comedy after another. This was Alex Keaton's drunken uncle, for crying out loud! This was the guy who made that lame-o D&D movie Monsters and Mazes. How in the world could he become a movie star? Well, the answer is obvious, in hindsight. It was a little something called paying his dues and working his ass off. Take a gander back through Hanks's resume from 1984 (first hit, Splash) to 1992 (his "comeback" film, A League of Their Own). There is a wide variety of films featured, everything from misunderstood masterworks (Joe vs. the Volcano) to unnecessary remakes (the awful Man with One Red Shoe). It was 1993, however, when Hanks did something most performers only dream of. He simultaneously won both critical and mainstream commercial respect, earning an Oscar for his work in Philadelphia and a huge fan base for his turn as lonely widower Sam Baldwin in Sleepless in Seattle. From then on, it's been nothing but greenback pastures and return trips to the Academy podium. Granted, he's tripped up now and then (The Terminal, The Ladykillers), yet you can't help but acknowledge the way he manages his stardom since the early, uneven days.
For anyone curious about the various twists and turns that the actor took to achieve his superstar status, the Tom Hanks Comedy Favorites box set from Universal is a decent place to start. It contains three of his most likeable efforts, movies that may pale in comparison to some of his later works, but still do a good job of explaining what audiences saw in this up and coming talent. Oddly enough, they also tend to represent the pinnacle of his past work. Though there will be individuals who scoff at the value of The Money Pit's nonsensical slapstick, or wonder how a film like The 'Burbs ever got the industry approval, when viewed in light of something as surreal as Punchline (a comic actor playing a burnt-out stand-up comic…for drama???), you begin the process of selective entertainment memory. In fact, it's best to view each movie individually, since they all stand as significant stepping stones in Hanks complicated climb to the top. In addition, there are intriguing ancillary elements—issues that have nothing to do with the featured film star—that give these films a fascinating subtext. Indeed, Hanks is probably one of the smartest actors out there, capable of hitching his fortunes to the right project at the right time, getting what he can out of it, and moving on. So let's begin our individual discussion with:
The Money Pit
Most movie lovers probably don't remember when actor-turned-director Richard Benjamin was the filmmaker flavor of the month. After the incredible success of his first feature, 1982's My Favorite Year, he went on to helm Racing with the Moon and the Burt Reynolds/Clint Eastwood vehicle City Heat. By the time The Money Pit came along, Benjamin was considered bankable, and Pit indeed proved popular—which is odd, when you consider that it was nothing more than a throwback to the old studio system slapstick screwball comedies that littered the pre-war landscape. In the only instance of this entire box set where he more or less carries the film single-handedly, Hank's humble music attorney, desperate to make amends for the criminality his lawyer father left behind, is both our hero and our comedy catalyst. Shelley Long does indeed costar, but she's more setup than punchline. Toss in a cavalcade of New York stage actors (Phil Bosco, Joe Mantegna), some interesting stunt casting (ballet star Alexander Godunov, Mountain's Leslie West as the leader of the Cheap Girls), and a whole lot of big-budget pratfalling (the house itself is one of the best comic creations ever), and you've got all the makings of a major motion-picture event. Only problem is, Benjamin wasn't ready to be sold into Spielberg territory. While the production credits featured the noted Mr. E.T., that was indeed where the cinematic wunderkind's involvement ended.
For a while, Benjamin does keep it together. The initial moments with Maureen Stapleton are good, as are the scenes where Long and Hanks discover just how big a real estate lemon they've ended up with. The staircase collapse and kitchen chaos still stand as amazing modern equivalents of old-school physical comedy. Many don't recognize Hanks's gifts as a corporal comedian. They see him as more cerebral or verbal. But the fact is that Hanks can do more with a wave or a walk than many performers manage with pages of witty scripting. There are times, as when one worker questions him on the legitimacy of a lawsuit against Bob Hope, where the look on his face and the way he is standing says more about the ridiculousness of the conversation than any drawn-out dialogue. Hanks is just that kind of actor, and he literally saves several sequences in Pit, including the large-scale stunt piece where an entire scaffolding set-up crumbles in pure Rube Goldberg grandiosity. It's not so much that we care what happens to his character (he is a lawyer, after all)—it's just that Hanks brings something special to a simple role like this. He lets the movie work through him, not trying to tackle it head-on. It's interesting to note that Hanks went dramatic with his next two efforts (Nothing in Common and Every Time We Say Goodbye). As a result, Pit feels like the end of act one in what would turn out to be a multipart career arc.
It's really unfair to have this film as part of the Tom Hanks Comedy Collection. It is clearly a starring vehicle for Dan Aykroyd, a long-time devotee of Jack Webb's staccato line delivery. Indeed, the former SNLer is SO good as Sgt. Joe Friday, looking every bit the fish out of water straight-laced by-the-book cop the script requires him to be that you wonder why any comedic support is needed. But in the mid-'80s when everything was high concept and geared to maximize box-office appeal, the slightly plump Aykroyd needed a sidekick—and it was Hanks who answered the call. Playing the oddly named Pep Streebeck (we never get an explanation for the odd moniker/nickname), and fashioned to be the polar opposite of everything Friday stands for, our hero is both helped and hindered by his position in the film. He gets some good digs in at his priggish partner's expense (especially in a scene where Friday attempts to enjoy a hot dog stand repast), but he's also given over to moments of meaningless stereotyping, going California native with all its touchy-feely phony baloney New Age nonsensicality. Indeed, much of Hanks's humor is aimed at playing directly into the notion of an undercover cop as completely corny cool guy. At least Aykroyd's Friday never strays from his solid spoof foundation. Indeed, when the actor gets going and delivers one of those classic Webb rants about crime, criminals, and the desire for "cleaner streets, better schools, and a good hockey team," we are mesmerized by the verbal acuity and intense delivery.
Sadly, not much else about Dragnet is so enduring. The storyline is kind of kooky, purposefully dealing with pornography, paganism, and anything else that would make someone like Friday eat his own foot. Dabney Coleman has a lisp that seems to subvert every single one of his witty remarks, and the villainous element is obvious and rather redundant. As an aside, it's great to see Harry Morgan here. His original turn as Webb's partner Bill Gannon was a fondly remembered aspect of the surreal '50s/'60s series, and his presence brings a nice bit of symmetry (and sense) to the storyline. What doesn't work, however, is the involvement of Alexandra Paul and her "romance" with Aykroyd. We don't really envision Joe Friday as a lover—his is an emblematic nature that's more symbolic than sensual. Their dopey dates may be good for a laugh or two, but they tend to betray the nature of the character. This is a man who is married to his job, not looking to get laid. The gal pal angle was obviously added to humanize Friday, to make him less of a law-abiding robot and more of a misplaced old-school icon. It doesn't really work, however. All it does is cement Friday's frigidity. Add in Hanks's hokey horndog routine (he gets a lot of mileage out of ogling and mugging) and you've got a great premise, unexceptionally realized.
By this point in his career, Hanks was a serious actor. He had received a well-deserved Oscar nod for Big and was trying to cache that recognition into a redefinition of his onscreen persona. He would stumble under the pressure to produce, but The 'Burbs should never be considered one of his incalculable missteps (not when there are Turner and Hooch and Bonfire of the Vanities to reflect on). It's merely your typical Joe Dante movie. Ever since The Howling (and to some extent, Gremlins), this genre director has had a hard time finishing off his movies. In general, Dante gets a good idea (an action comedy take on Fantastic Voyage, a look back at old-fashioned motion-picture ballyhoo mixed with the Cuban Missile Crisis) and fashions them into almost great movies (Innerspace, Matinee). But somewhere along the line, his narratives never gel, and we are left with great ideas and set pieces floating around a puddle of uncongealed average-ness. It's the same here. The 'Burbs wants to be a satiric illustration of that age-old legend about the neighborhood house with the notorious history/reputation, and it wants to tell that tale with the help of Hanks, comic Rick Ducommun, B-movie veteran Bruce Dern, and a slightly stoned Corey Feldman. Dante even delivers in the villain department, recruiting former Laugh-In poet Henry Gibson, performance artist Brother Theodore, and the cinematically unsightly Courtney Gaines as the killer Klopek clan.
Where the film fails is in the follow through. The set-up is spectacular—Hanks a harried husband looking for a little fun over his vacation, Ducommun the buddy who believes the neighbors are human sacrificing Satanists, and Dern as their Vietnam vet commando comrade. Together they investigate the weird noises late at night, the determined digging in the backyard, the mysterious femur bone the family dog unearths, and the odd way in which the weirdoes deal with their garbage. Had the movie found a way to work as subtly as this all the way through, the last-act payoff would be spectacular. Instead, there is an awkward middle section where Hanks's wife decides to confront the Klopeks, and the scene literally goes nowhere. Neither does the subplot involving Here's Lucy's Gale Gordon as an elderly neighbor who may or may not have fallen victim to the family. He's there for gimmick factor and stunt casting only. Take away most of the supporting players and most of the script written by Going Berserk scribe Dana Olsen and you'd have a more coherent movie. Indeed, The 'Burbs is a witty intro and a slam-bang finale looking for middle material to hold it all together. Instead, we have to rely on Hanks, his co-stars, and the narrative's inherent interest factor to pull us through. It almost works—just like every other Joe Dante directorial effort.
It is clear from revisiting these films years later that all three are more director-driven than star-driven. Even Dragnet is marked more by Tom Mankiewicz's approach to the material than the overall level of comedic invention by the actors. The 'Burbs is pure Dante, an unique vision of suburbia as hidden hell that can't quite pull its anarchic act together. Pit plays so perfectly within the Harold Lloyd school of dangerous delights that we hardly notice the moments where the dialogue lets us down. In both cases, we are looking at unusual approaches to narrative and structure, twists on the standard comedy formulas that usually require straight men, genial goofballs, and bizarre situations. In both instances, the movies more or less work. Certainly they stumble, and it's pretty clear from their future filmic fortunes that both Dante and Benjamin were gambling with house money at the time, but it's interesting to see something that dares to be different. The same can't be said for Dragnet. It's an '80s buddy comedy with a carefully controlled personality and a bunch of big ideas rendered more or less miniature by the skit-style approach to the humor. Aykroyd was born to play Joe Friday, but the jarring juxtaposition between his character and Hanks's is too much to tolerate. We keep wondering how these two ever survived each other, and anticipate the hail of friendly gunfire arriving at any minute. None of these films are flops, not by any stretch of the modern definition of same. But they do pale in comparison to the work Hanks would do later on. And perhaps that's the point of such a retail reminiscence.
Taking previously available prints and the slimmest selection of extras ever offered as part of a career-overview box set, Universal places three films on two discs, coughs up a couple of added content selections, and calls it a day. There are rumors that both Dragnet and The 'Burbs have been remastered for this collection, but from the looks of the actual transfers themselves, this seems like a stretch. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen images for all three films appear soft, a lack of carefully controlled contrasts removing some of the discernible detail. Of the trio, The 'Burbs is the brightest, using Dante's love of primary colors and brash lighting to really bolster the picture's visual appeal. Pit's problems are the same as they were in the theater—director Benjamin confuses soft focus for wistfulness. As a result, we get way too much optical languor for a slapstick farce. For those who care about audio as much as video, there will be something to kvetch about as well. Only The Money Pit has a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (in both standard and DTS versions), while the other two have to settle for slack 2.0 Stereo soundtracks. The multi-channel option for Pit makes sense—there is a lot of aural ambience to the stunt set pieces, and having all the speakers involved really helps to sell said aspect.
Sadly, the bonus features—or lack thereof—really undermine the value of all three films. First off, placing Money Pit on its own makes no sense. Unless you're going to turn the presentation into a content-packed special edition of the one movie, why make Dragnet and The 'Burbs share a DVD? The minor EPK making of included as part of Pit doesn't warrant the movie's single aluminum disc designs. In addition, the only other interesting element included is an alternate ending for The 'Burbs. In it, the final denouement is discussed, not shown. Gibson in particular must have been pissed when this finale was scrapped. He lost at least two pages of monologue when Dante went to a more action-oriented conclusion. While their status as lesser lights in the Hanks canon may mandate such sloppy treatment, one of the best facets of DVD is the ability to describe and contextualize. Placing these films in proper perspective when it comes to a star like Hanks would have been wonderful. All we have here is a marketing manipulation of the man's legacy.
Tom Hanks and his indestructible reputation have indeed cooled off in recent years. After the less than effective remake of The Ladykillers (Hanks is fine, the Coen Brothers and the rest of the cast are not) and the Da Vinci Code debacle (huge hit, a critical catastrophe), the one-time infallible film star is a little less bright. He's got some intriguing projects up his cinematic sleeve (Charlie Wilson's War, a new Mark Romanek film) and appears content to add his name to numerous movies as a producer (including the big-screen version of the musical Mamma Mia! and Spike Jonze's adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are). In fact, the days of Tom Hanks dominating the box office and fame game appear to be quietly fading away. Looking back, he has a lot to be proud of. Even the three films offered here as part of the Tom Hanks Comedy Favorites Collection paint him in a very positive light. They're not outright embarrassments, and each one has its own individual positives and negatives. While far from classics, they do offer us a glimpse at where Tom Hanks came from—and in many ways, where he would wind up going.
Not guilty. Though far from perfect, the films in this collection are much better than the meandering mess that passes for big-screen comedy in the Naughts. Aside from the charges pending against Universal for less-than-stellar tech specs, the rest of this case is dismissed. Court adjourned.
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