When the success of "Splash" smacked Tom Hanks in 1984, the actor didn't know what to do with himself. After years of struggling in the acting trenches, working the beloved but poorly rated sitcom "Bosom Buddies," and generally riding good notices to little recognition, here was Hanks's chance to cash in and make himself a star.
At the time, it didn't pan out quite the way many expected.
Hanks worked on a steady stream of mid-budgeted comedies, all aimed to exploit his gift with a one-liner and overall doofus likeability. Universal has complied three of those titles into one package, boldly titled "The Tom Hanks Comedy Favorites Collection." I'm pretty sure the always career-aware actor wouldn't call any of these films his favorite, but if you're a Hanks aficionado like myself, there's much to celebrate with this DVD release.
Disc One contains only "The Money Pit"
"The Money Pit"
"The Money Pit" is a motion picture that wants so much from the audience, but fails to put in the proper effort. Director Richard Benjamin is shooting for a screwball tone in the vein of a 1940s comedy, but misses by a country mile with this hodgepodge of pratfalls, eruptions, and "Looney Tunes" inspired clowning around.
It's difficult to detest "Pit" though, because it's such a harmless film and it's the most strangely lit comedy of the 1980s. Cinematographer Gordon Willis ("The Godfather" films, "Manhattan") bathes the film in both shadows and harsh source lighting, leaving this circus looking close to F.W. Murnau outtakes at certain times. It's an interesting choice for a lighting palette, and when the film eventually runs out of ideas there's always Willis's photography to take pleasure in.
It's really up to Hanks to save "Pit" from its most sitcom moments, and lord almighty, the young actor gives the film his blood, sweat, and tears. Hanks is like a human tornado in "Pit," rolling around the frame desperate to makes Benjamin's laid back direction funny. Clearly, this is the actor at his most frantic, and while the effort is appreciated, at times his cackling and squealing can get to be a little too toxic. It doesn't help the cause when Hanks has to play off of Shelley Long, who is supposed to act as a foil and some sort of sexual touchstone for the picture. She's fails to live up to both requirements.
If the slapstick set-pieces manage to slug you into submission, there's fun to be had with "Money Pit." For Hanks purists, I would consider this one of his low points; caught in the net of popularity obligations, the lure of producer Steven Spielberg, and a city of suits telling him he could make anything funny. It's an interesting failure.
Disc Two splits rent between "The 'Burbs" and "Dragnet"
"The 'Burbs" is fascinating because it was Hanks's first major comedic production after his monster success with "Big." Now armed with a bankable name, Hanks chose to join forces with director Joe Dante to create this chaotic piece of cinema. One that, back in 1989, I detested with unusual pre-teen fury.
Viewed again with 2007 eyes, "The 'Burbs" isn't so much the matinee frustration as it was when I was younger. Now it's nothing short of a trainwreck. There's a lot of talent here and Dante appears to be in an even more playful mood than usual, but nothing clicks in this misfire. It's a black comedy that skimped on the comedy.
Dante tends to wield like firearm; point him the wrong way, and someone is going to get hurt. The central idea of madcap suburban paranoia is an appealing starting point for the screenplay, but the production only seems to know one speed: noise. "'Burbs" just keeps pouring on the slapstick and destruction to a point where it suffocates any stab at satire or even harmless chuckles.
Of course, Dante wasn't wearing his thinking cap when he cast Hanks to be the straight man of the piece. Leaving the gags up to Bruce Dern and, yuck, Rick Ducommun, "'Burbs" doesn't have a prayer. To compensate, Dante chokes the film with winky wit and DOA slapsticky suspense sequences, culminating in an ending that approaches irony since it never seems to actually end.
"The 'Burbs" does have its fans though, just look at the film's extensive Wikipedia entry. I respect the love, but I just don't get it. Sadly, this would be the film that kicked off Hanks's career free-fall of the early 1990s.
I'm sure this is a controversial statement to write, but I've always considered "Dragnet" to be one of Hanks's most hilarious pieces of work and an excellent film in its own right. The picture works because it's not a spoof; it's a loving tribute to the old Jack Webb television series, albeit pumped up the wazoo with 80s minutiae.
The diamond of the film is Dan Aykroyd's impersonation of Webb's tight-fisted approach to law enforcement and rat-tat-tat verbal delivery. Aykroyd has all the dialogue and body language down cold, even giving himself a sharp Johnny Unitas haircut to best magnify the cultural and professional differences between his Joe Friday and new partner, eternal goofball Pep Streebeck (Hanks).
Writer/Director Joseph Mankiewicz instills in "Dragnet" a distinctive comedy plot interweaving a pagan reign of terror with the troubles of a porn king (an inspired turn by Dabney Coleman). Given that overwritten comedy plots tend to lose their way quickly, it's a miracle the film never falls completely apart. Mankiewicz keeps it all in check, servicing the gags through Aykroyd's gold medal performance, writing vivid supporting characters to deepen the story (The Virgin Connie Swail, hulking brute Emil Muzz), and topping off the whole experience with a dollop of excessive action and stunts fit for the period's PG-13 standards.
In terms of its Hanksian appeal, "Dragnet" doesn't challenge the actor much, with Mankiewicz stepping back and giving Hanks free reign to improv against Aykroyd's rigid dialogue and mug himself into a puddle. This is the loosest, most ridiculous Hanks has ever been, and it's a delight to watch him bounce off the scripted madness and his shell-shocked co-stars. Pep is the free-wheeling soul of "Dragnet," and Hanks takes that challenge seriously. He's terrific in a wonderful 1987 gem that I'm disappointed has not grown in popularity over the last 20 years.
"Money Pit" is handed the best treatment of this collection, keeping the Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS sound selections from the previous DVD. Blessed with a healthy amount of sound effects, the DVD is a fun listen. The mix compliments the mayhem onscreen very well.
"'Burbs" and "Dragnet" are both sent to Dolby Digital 2.0 jail. The mixes on both films are serviceable, but they aren't afforded the "Money Pit" treatment, which lends the DVD a lopsided feel of aural attention. "Dragnet" in DTS...now's there's dream that I guess will have to wait for another decade.
All films are presented with anamorphic widescreen transfers (1.85:1 aspect ratios).
"Money Pit" is a direct port of the 2003 DVD, and contains a soft, but stable level of picture quality. The idiosyncrasies of Gordon Willis's cinematography are preserved nicely, with strong blacks and bright outdoor lighting that get along well on the DVD.
"Dragnet" is the real revelation of the DVD. The 1999 issue of the film was riddled with grain, saturated colors, and a slight horizontal stretch that ruined any home viewing experience. Better late than never, Universal has cleaned up the film for this release and the results are an improvement, but only in some respects. There's always a but.
While the picture has been brightened, colors are more stable, and most of the grain has been kicked out of the image, sharing disc space with "The 'Burbs" hurts the proper transfer effort. The image does tend to get smeary; a problem that plagues the remastered "'Burbs" as well. Still, the picture quality on "Dragnet" is miles ahead of the last DVD, so I'll call this a victory, even in the face of DVD packaging foolishness (three movies on two discs? Bah?).
"Money Pit" includes a theatrical trailer (with a half-assed Richard Benjamin voiceover), and a seven-minute production featurette from 1986. While only a forgettable promotional knick-knack, the piece does give a good look at the light behind-the-scenes atmosphere of the set. Director Benjamin also shows the viewer the house model that was constructed to best plan out the "Mouse Trap" slapstick centerpiece of the film.
"The 'Burbs" includes a theatrical trailer and an alternate ending. The second conclusion offers a more direct approach to wrapping up this mess. Here, dialogue and performance are relied on to close the film. The theatrical ending scraps all that for car chases and more visual clutter, while adding more room for, blech, Rick Ducommun to ham it up. Haven't we suffered enough?
Criminally, all "Dragnet" includes is a theatrical trailer. Too bad, because Mankiewicz is such a personable guy with gift for Hollywood tales. A commentary from him would've been a perfect fit.
Even though it's bound by studio limitations, I think Universal lucked into a nice overview of Tom Hanks in the 1980s. This is the actor at his most amorphous and fearless, and who doesn't want Hanks this carefree and funny? The DVD also gives new format life to "The 'Burbs" and "Dragnet," finally allowing frustrated consumers to toss out their old discs and enjoy this mild upgrade of two forgotten comedies.
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