I’ve found that there are some people that like to rag on the suburbs. I get it. It’s easy to say the suburbs are boring, full of cookie-cutter houses that all look the same. I, however, have spent most of my life in the suburbs, so it’s what works for me. I would never, though, claim the burbs are particularly “rock and roll.” If I started a rock band, I certainly would never call it “The Suburbans.” That sounds like an invitation to get beat up. In the world of the movies, however, specifically, the 1999 film called The Suburbans, once upon a time there was a band with that name that made a minor splash on the charts.
Our film picks up many years after the band has split up due to scandals and the inability to successfully navigate the shift to music videos in the 80’s. The four members are played by Craig Bierko (Mitch), Will Ferrell (Gil), and co-writers Tony Guma (Rory) and Donal Lardner Ward (Danny), who also directed. After reuniting for a few tunes at Gil’s wedding, the band is approached by a record company executive named Cate (Jennifer Love Hewitt) who sees an opportunity for a big comeback. Apparently big multi-million dollar record companies hire execs right out of high school, as Hewitt would’ve been a mere 19 years old at the time this film was in production.
Cate is super enthusiastic about the project, as she was a bit of a fangirl for the Suburbans in her youth, but the reunion proves to be more challenging than anyone imagined. The four middle-aged former heartthrobs all have their own sets of at home problems and they soon find working with each other to be just as difficult as it was when the band split up. Things get more complicated as the lovely young Cate clearly has goo-goo eyes for Danny, who is navigating his way through a strained relationship with his girlfriend Grace, played by Amy Brenneman.
The basic idea behind The Suburbans is not without merit. I’ve often found myself driving around listening to oldies radio (which now means the bands and songs I grew up with) and wondering what are those guys doing now? I mean, do they have real jobs? What’s it like to have a cubicle next to the guy that used to be the bass player for Cinderella? So, the set up is good, but I think the film struggles with what tone it wants to have for tackling this subject. The film jumps back and forth between trying to be really weighty and serious, and then going for absurdist comedy. Truthfully, the absurdist moments are the ones that work better. There a handful of wonderfully goofy scenes that feature Jerry and Ben Stiller as the father/son heads of the record company. They are clearly improvising their performances, regaling us with stories of they were responsible for telling Berry Gordy the name “The Temptones” was awful and should be changed to “The Temptations.” This stuff is funny! But then we jump to scenes of Danny being afraid to grow up and commit to Grace and the whole energy of the film comes crashing down.
One of the film’s biggest hurdles is that the central characters, the band themselves, are the least interesting in the film. I hate to say it, but all four are kind drips and there’s not much for us as the audience to latch on to. Even Will Ferrell, who had been on SNL for several years at this point, brings almost none of the comedic energy he is known for. The characters that surround these pre-MTV hasbeens are much more intriguing. Amy Brenneman as Grace brings a performance that balances the serious and comedic far better than the script of the film itself does. Bridgett Wilson is also a lot of fun as Rory’s girlfriend Lara, who is always wrangling her bevy of obnoxious children. Then we have Jennifer Love Hewitt, who is kind of adorable in this film. Yes, her character is very problematic. She’s sooooooo young, throwing herself at her 5th grade celebrity crush. Yet, there’s still a sweetness to her character.
There are a few minor bits of fun to have along the way. The film’s friendly jabs at the world of pop music in the early 80’s will be fun for anyone that lived through it. The outfits and hairstyles that the band sported in their prime, and awkwardly try to recreate for their comeback, are a kick. The film opens with a great flashback of an appearance by The Suburbans on American Bandstand, complete with Dick Clark himself. It is a spot-on recreation. Former MTV Music News anchor Kurt Loder also turns in an appearance, as does JJ Abrams as a music reporter. This film was an early producing effort for Abrams.
I think if The Suburbans had gone all out with a more absurdist comedic tone it would’ve had greater success. You know, something more along the lines of This is Spinal Tap or Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. With its uneven tone and bland central characters, what we end up with is what some consider the suburbs themself of being…kind of flat and bland.