Neighbors (1981) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language and sexual innuendo
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty, Kathryn Walker, Lauren-Marie Taylor, Tim Kazurinsky
Director: John G. Avildsen
Screenplay: Larry Gelbart (based on the novel by Thomas Berger)
In what would end up being his final film, John Belushi (Continental Divide, 1941) chooses a rare straight-man role as a suburban husband and father whose life turns upside down when his new neighbors, Vic (Aykroyd, Doctor Detroit) and Ramona (Moriarty, Matinee), move in next door. The story takes place over the course of one day, with Vic consistently getting under Earl's skin with his untruthful explanations and uncouth shenanigans. Meanwhile, sexpot Ramona is determined to get Earl in the sack, or so it seems, while Earl's wife, Enid (Walker, DARYL), thinks they are charming, despite Earl's rants about their behavior. He wants them out of the house, and hopefully his life, but one thing's for sure, they won't be going quietly.
Neighbors is a black comedy that may mildly please the fans of its stars for their performances against type, but wildly misses the mark time and again as a cohesive attempt to make a "Twilight Zone" suburban sitcom. Considered a flop at the time of its release, which is an erroneous assumption given that it tripled its $9 million budget at the box office, it nevertheless didn't have much in legs outside of its opening week, and fans of the film looking for a follow-up to the largely successful Blues Brothers were mystified by what appeared to be a concept film without a clue as to where to go from a scene to scene basis.
Interestingly, screenwriter Gelbart (Bedazzled, Blame It on Rio), who would go on to nomination for his script for Tootsie the following year (his second), would stumble miserably to make this high-concept laugher, based on the absurdist novel by Thomas Berger (obviously, it must have proven difficult to translate the vibe to film), work. Gelbart acknowledges that the finished product barely resembles his script, which was rewritten daily by stars Belushi and Aykroyd to suit their blend of slapstick. The film's climax and ending hardly adheres to its source novel, except for its unpredictable vibe, but by tossing in the kitchen sink in terms of comedy styles, the tone never settles into a particular groove, and consequently, momentum is never achieved to string together hilarity.
If the theme of the film is that there's more value in living a life of unsettled tumult than predictable complacency, the conversion of middle-aged family man to lustful adventurer is not quite achieved without major shortcuts. In fact, when Earl decides he'd rather embrace his despised neighbors rather than shun them, it feels more like Avildsen's (Rocky, The Karate Kid) attempt to come up with a punch line to his "shaggy dog" story of surrealism, but it fails by not staying true to the characters. The other characters can be equally inconsistent from scene to scene, but Earl is our everyman, and shouldn't just become off-the-wall loony without rhyme or reason.
Perhaps the production was doomed from the start, given Belushi's drug problems (which reportedly caused a few disruptions to the production), the squabbles between the stars and Avildsen (whom they tried to replace several times), squabbles between Avildsen and the producers, Bill Conti's (Rocky II, Rocky III) late replacement as the film's composer, and a daily shoot that changed directions many times, especially after test screenings left audiences perplexed enough to go back, reshoot and re-edit. What's left is one very uneven, barely structured, and only sporadically amusing comedy that just about everyone involved with the making of points the finger at someone else as to why it didn't ultimately work.
Neighbors has a number of mildly surprising spurts of amusement, but as a whole, it still lacks a consistent vision at its core. Perhaps Avildsen trying to understand Belushi and Akroyd trying to understand Gelbart trying to understand Berger is leaves too much lost in adaptation, especially when plugging in two ad-libbing skit comedians in the middle of a no-set-rules premise. In the end, one remembers Belushi's attempt at subtlety, Aykroyd's blue-eyed goofiness, and Moriarty's smoldering sensuality, but the rest of it tries to be too weird for even the filmmakers to get a firm handle on. Like the homemade Italian cuisine that Vic pretends to have gotten from a fancy restaurant, this is what happens when the film promises greatness but the stars try to cook things up themselves.
©2008 Vince Leo