Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Unsung!: Neighbors

I remember really liking Neighbors when it first came out. I was in the minority.

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.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Set-in-his-ways suburbanite Earl Keese (John Belushi) gets a shock to the system when a loud and earthy couple move in next door.  Keese thinks that aggressive Vic (Dan Aykroyd) and flirty Ramona (Cathy Moriarty) are trying to put something over on him, but can never quite gather the evidence to prove this… or to even figure out what that “something” might be. The comic misunderstandings that follow teach Earl about what his comfortable life has really become.

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?

Only seven.

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!


  1. Alright, you've convinced me. I'm watching this on Netflix tonight.

    1. Oh, I wish it was that easy! Neighbors is currently available only as a Columbia Burn-On-Demand title or to buy (not rent or stream) from Amazon Instant Video. Sheesh.

  2. I don't think I've ever even heard of this movie. I'm definitely interested, and will have to check it out. Job done, sir.

  3. I cannot understand why this film is only available as a Columbia MOD title or on Amazon Instant Video.

    For better or worse box office performance (unless the film rises from the ashes as a cult flick, ala "Troll 2" or Carpenter's "The Thing") determines how a studio treats its movies. The same way we won't ever get "Modern Problems" (i.e. the movie from which the creator of "The Secret World of Alex Mack" stole 'the hook') on a tricked-put SE, "The Neighbor" is condemned to relative obscurity by how badly it did in theaters.

  4. JB, Netflix's catalogue differs from country to country because of distribution agreements. Generally, I think you have a better selection in the US than we do in Canada but there are occasional titles we get that you don’t.

    Anyway, I didn't love Neighbors. I found Akroyd and Belushi both too broad for the material and I don’t think swapping their roles was the problem. Belushi portrayed Earl too mannered and ineffectual for him to be a relatable protagonist. Akroyd’s Vic is so overt in his awfulness that it’s impossible to think Earl’s family would be taken in by him. But the script has Earl escalate things so quickly that we’re never really on his side either. I would have preferred the film to be more grounded in the opening with a slower build up toward some comic momentum in its second half.

    I prefer The `Burbs.

  5. NEIGHBORS played pretty regularly on the Sony Movie Channel a few months back; hopefully, they'll put it back in rotation soon. "That was very foolish, Earl, and it could get you snuffed!" So many great lines ...

  6. I actually just watched this last night. It made me feel very uncomfortable (maybe that was due to the score?) After the movie ended, however, we spent a lot of time quoting our favorite lines and laughing at Akroyd's and Belushi's deliveries of said lines (mostly Akroyd's). There should be a word for a movie that is funnier upon thinking about it after it's finished.

  7. Firesale, Alan Arkin, good luck finding it.
    Barfly, no decent DVD release.
    Slam shot, Paul Newman
    Scavengerr Hunt
    Just some suggestions...

    1. I did not read your comment until just this morning.
      I remember seeing Fire Sale when it first came out and liking it.
      Slap Shot was the first R rated movie I was ever allowed to see.
      Barfly, which I pronounce as if it were an adverb, is also great.
      These are all fine suggestions for future columns. Thanks.

  8. Bill Conti did the (Godawful) score, not Tom. Great write up though, and I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Highly original.

    1. My bad! I did not mean to impugn the reputation of this fine English actor.

  9. I just recently bought this movie at Target for about $4.69, could be more, could be less, but I'm fairly certain it didn't even hit the five-dollar mark. Great movie!