Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Neighbors (1981, John G. Avildsen) got a bad rap when it was released, and with the benefit of hindsight, one can see why. It was based on a troubling book by a noted “literary” author. The screenplay was by comic genius Larry Gelbart, but he complained that the filmmakers took too many liberties with his script. Stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd complained that director Avildsen (Rocky, Blue Thunder) had no comedic sensibilities and actively tried to have him replaced. Avildsen complained that the soundtrack music by the punk band Fear, which Belushi had insisted upon, did not fit the rhythm or tone of his film and so hired Tom Conti to write more suitable music. Fans of the two SNL stars complained that they were both playing against type, having switched roles during pre-production: Belushi would play the “normal” neighbor Earl Keese, and Dan Aykroyd would play the flamboyant, crude Vic.
Complaints, complaints, complaints.
All of those whiners can bite my substantial ass, because I love this movie. Time has been kind to Neighbors. Most amateur reviewers on IMDB and Amazon Instant Video tend to start their reviews the same way, with some variation of “I thought I was the only person who ever loved this film.” Looking at it now, I see a funny, offbeat film unlike any other comedy. Although admittedly it is a film with problems, the laughs outweigh the quibbles.
Did I mention the weird electrical towers?
It is true that the Thomas Berger novel on which the film is based is much darker, but for a movie made in Hollywood at the beginning of the Reagan Era of Enforced Happiness and Smiles, I am constantly surprised by how much darkness the film gets away with. Also, and I nearly forgot this: the film came out at Christmas! I would prefer the book’s ending – which includes (SPOILERS) not only destruction, but also destruction followed by abject abandonment. (I wonder if they ever shot the original ending. If so, it would make a helluva bonus feature on a full-fledged special edition DVD. I would buy two!)
The actors are all grand, with at least one performance entering the Hall of the Amazing: Cathy Moriarty gives the performance of her career here (and that is saying something considering the performances she gave in Raging Bull, Soapdish, and Matinee) playing a character we have never seen before. Whenever Moriarty’s Ramona threatens to become a trite stereotype, she takes the character in an unexpected direction.
Watching the film now, a viewer would question the original fuss about Aykroyd and Belushi’s decision to switch roles. Aykroyd played lots of lunatics on SNL (he was the “Bass-O-Matic” pitchman, for God’s sake) so it should not have seemed like that big a stretch. Sure, Belushi was known for crazy, drunken Bluto from Animal House and crazy, drunken Bill Kelso from 1941, but his fans must surely have been familiar with some of the nebbishes and dads he played in SNL skits; his “Henry Brock of H.L. Brock” in this sketch is virtually a template for Neighbors’ Earl Keese.
One of my favorite scenes involves an angry Vic interrogating a very frightened Earl about an incident involving Vic’s wife. Seems at one point Ramona was only wearing a towel and when she drops it, Earl sees her in the altogether. A steely-eyed Vic asks, “Did the towel drop, Earl, or did you PSYCHICALLY WILL IT TO FALL?” That one line stays with me for some reason, more than 30 years later.
The Tom Conti score, though, is a definite liability. It is almost as if studio heads, fearing audiences would not “get it” because the material here frequently is so dark, gave copious notes to Conti to “lighten it up” and “underscore the joke” and “insult the audience’s intelligence on a regular basis.” I have read that a score that too closely follows the action on the screen is known in the biz as “Mickey Mousing.” But this score goes way beyond that – this score is just goofy. And by “goofy” I mean it is Goofy… fucking Mickey Mouse… in a mouse hole… a mouse hole made of music.
I cannot understand why this film is only available as a Columbia MOD title or on Amazon Instant Video. Surely the Belushi credit alone warrants a legitimate release. How many damn movies did he make?
Hey, F-Heads! Are there films you love that you feel not enough people know about? Why not tell me? Write about them in the comments section below. I will not write about them, of course, but I will keep your secret!