Sunday, December 27, 2009
How Many Things Go Right In This Crazy World
Released in December just in time for the holidays way back in 1981 NEIGHBORS is rarely talked about these days, remembered as John Belushi’s last film as much as anything. In spite of terrible reviews the film still did decent box office at the time though for whatever reason it remains unreleased on DVD, curious considering how any number of other comedies from Columbia Pictures have long since come out. Good or bad, it is a strange film and remains one because the clashing of different comedic sensibilities keeps it from being a complete success. It has its admirers, no doubt a result of watching it countless times on HBO back in the day and it’s safe to say that even as a non-success it’s still more interesting than any number of other comedies featuring SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alums from the past few decades. You could say that one thing wrong with NEIGHBORS, as a comedy, is that there aren’t very many laughs in it. That doesn’t make it a chore to sit through in itself but it seems worth mentioning. There’s also the issue of the music, but we’ll get to that.
Suburbanite Earl Keese (John Belushi) is settling in for another boring Friday night of drinking wine and watching TV with wife Enid (Kathryn Walker) when the sudden appearance of a car parked in front of the vacant house next door indicates that someone has moved in. He soon meets the new neighbors Vic (Dan Aykroyd) and Ramona (Cathy Moriarty) and while Enid takes to them immediately they manage to get under Earl’s skin just as fast and before he knows it his dull existence is turned into something out of a nightmare.
Part of the oddness of NEIGHBORS is due to the approach taken by director John G. Avildsen who at this point had won the Oscar for directing ROCKY but may not have been the ideal choice for a dark satire based on a novel with a very specific tone. NEIGHBORS does have a tone but too often it just feels weird for the sake of being weird and unlike Joe Dante’s THE ‘BURBS, which also stays entirely in its cul-de-sac, it never feels certain of what it wants to say. So the bad news would be that it’s just kind of weird. With that said, the good news is also that it’s kind of weird, which at least means that it’s continually engaging to watch particularly considering the oddness of some of the dialogue (script credited to Larry Gelbart, who was not happy with the final result—the director and two stars apparently worked on it as well). Adding to the mood the director is also willing to just let whole scenes play out in one take, with the post-dinner argument between Belushi and Walker being a particularly good example of that—actually, the entire dinner sequence with the four actors is a very well-played sequence, nailing just the right uneasy tone. I haven’t read the book for years but my vague recollection is that plotwise it’s not all that different and even some dialogue carries over (the memorable restaurant name “Caesar’s Garlic Wars” for one) but the difference is mostly due to an approach which just somehow feels off. I like the randomness of some of that dialogue—like the two-dollar bill—but too often it all feels like the result of warring (comedic?) sensibilities and some of this-- mentions of garlic, Walker’s Indian fetish--feels like someone—(Aykroyd?) sticking some of their preoccupations into things.
By a certain point it all can only really be accepted as a nightmare type of logic but it’s not always clear if that’s what the story is going for or if it’s just a result of haphazard filmmaking. The end in particular could be seen as some sort of dream (maybe even at the point of a certain character’s death, which would be consistent with the novel) but then again so could most of the film. The odd cul-de-sac setting of the two houses doesn’t resemble any suburban street in existence, with no other houses within view (so can this automatically be considered style?) and the various stabs at social satire usually wind up feeling like they’re just left hanging there—since the film was shot in New York out on Staten Island I can’t help but wonder what a version directed in deadpan style by Sidney Lumet would have been like. Either way, it doesn’t provide laughter so much as a response of “Hmmm….that’s interesting,” followed by a slight smile and even any attempt to get a laugh which catches in our throat in response to Earl Keese’s predicament doesn’t really happen. If NEIGHBORS hadn’t been so dependent on the presence of its two stars to be sold as another vehicle and provide uproarious laughter it may not have gotten such a harsh response at the time. Someone like Peter Falk and Alan Arkin might have been more appropriate for the demographic…but it still might have become more about their personalities than anything the original author had been going for. Interestingly, the film’s release came only a week apart from the Lemmon-Matthau teaming BUDDY BUDDY, also a dark comedy which wasn’t received particularly well at the time. It was the final film for Billy Wilder, yes, but I doubt that many people would have correctly guessed which of these two comedy teams would still be making movies seventeen years later. Details of the production were covered extensively in Bob Woodward’s controversial Belushi bio “Wired”, portraying the star as being against Avildsen directing (so was Aykroyd, only not quite as vocal) and, during the shoot and into post-production, becoming more and more uncooperative as it became clear that the film wasn’t coming together the way everyone wanted.
One of the more memorable elements of the movie as it turned out was the score by Bill Conti which in its attempt to be as cartoonish as desperately possible becomes either the best or the worst score attached to a movie you’ve ever heard, depending on your point of view. It does help provide a distinct tone, whatever that is, but if there isn’t already a hard and fast rule that music in comedies should never try to be ‘funny’ this score would be a good piece of evidence. And for much of the running time it just doesn’t stop. “Wired” mentions that Avildsen had tracked in cues from old horror movies during editing as temp music, which sounds like a good idea. Belushi apparently wanted songs by the punk group Fear, fronted by Lee Ving, used in the film and musician Tom Scott whose work had already appeared in films like STIR CRAZY and CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES provided a score with a dark tinge definitely more serious than comedic (clips featuring it can be found on YouTube). The fact that it was dropped seems like it was an issue of concerns over the response to what they had more than anything else—a Belushi-Aykroyd comedy was promised so that’s what they needed to deliver, complete with music which would veritably shout at the audience, “Laugh! It’s funny!!”
That the two leads went against expectations in which roles they wound up playing has always been talked about, but looking at it now it’s one of the things about the film which works best. Even if he did hate working on the film, Belushi hits the right notes on how to play his frustrated suburbanite character while also making him sympathetic, something I’m not sure Aykroyd could have done at this time (has anyone ever really felt sorry for Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe III in TRADING PLACES?). If anything is wrong with it, Belushi is a number of years too young for the role, something which becomes more apparent every time he takes off his glasses. Aykroyd winds up nailing his own role in his best motor-mouth style, making him slightly dangerous but still weirdly likable. Cathy Moriarty, in only her second role after RAGING BULL, is terrific as Romona, funny as well as sexy but also kind of sweet--her continued teasing of Belushi’s character leads to what feels like a genuine chemistry between the two actors. Of the four leads, Kathryn Walker is the least known (although she does have one terrific scene with Paul Newman in SLAP SHOT and later on married James Taylor) and the actress provides a definite intensity which goes beyond what other actresses may have just played as a standard shrewish wife. The fact that we never quite know what to expect from her because of this makes her even more unpredictable, more of a danger to her husband than the two people who are the actual strangers in the story. Under heavy makeup, Tim Kazurinsky is very funny as the elderly Pa Greavy, who spits insults at Belushi almost as soon as their phone conversation begins.
Watching the characters drive off at the end I can’t help but think how the ending of NEIGHBORS would start to seem out of place just a few years later as the eighties proceeded to clamp down on things, turning into a world more appropriate for Earl Keese than Vic & Ramona. Not to mention the awareness of how this performance would be the last glimpse of John Belushi we would ever get. If anything, this film remains a tantalizing look at what he may have been capable of in films if he moved beyond the Bluto stereotype. Unfortunately, we never got to find out. For good or bad, some of the dialogue and elements of this film have stayed in my head for years afterward, proving that some things really do stay with you if you first encounter them at the right time. In 2002’s EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS somebody mentions a character trying to flee a mall by taking an exit between “the Cinema Cineplex and the Singer Sewing Center” and I can recall being amazed that somebody had actually cribbed that line from NEIGHBORS. You can’t really say that the film works—the approach is too unsure of itself for that to have happened—but looking at it now all these years later it’s much more engaging, much more oddball, than many other SNL-inspired teamings that have happened over the past few decades. The laughs may not be there but the weird energy that is present even when the film doesn't quite work, the weird tone that makes it tough to pin down what it's really supposed to be, always manages to stay with you.