Friday, June 26, 2015

Neighbors (1981)

Director: John G. Avildson                               Writer: Larry Gelbart
Film Score: Bill Conti                                       Cinematography: Gerald Hirschfeld
Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty and Kathryn Walker

One of the great things that comedy directors can do is cast against type. Bill Murray, for one, began a major career revival when he began playing the straight man rather than the crazy man, which I trace to Groundhog Day at the hands of his friend Harold Ramis. Before that, Ron Howard cast Henry Winkler as the milquetoast in Night Shift to great effect. But before both of those came John Belushi’s appearance as a man living a suburban nightmare in Neighbors. In reality, Belushi had already begun to trend that direction anyway. The Blues Brothers, for all its zaniness, had Belushi and Dan Aykroyd acting as the eye of the hurricane while everything devolved into chaos around them. After that the change was more noticeable and Belushi received positive criticism for playing a “straight” role in the romantic comedy Continental Divide with Blaire Brown. So the stage had already been set for his character in this film. The story was from a novel by Thomas Berger, who had also penned the comic Little Big Man, and the screenplay was written by Larry Gelbart who was riding high from nearly a decade of television success with M*A*S*H.

The film begins in a cul-de-sac with two large houses. One is owned by John Belushi and his wife Kathryn Walker, while the other is vacant. The two live a sedentary life and have fallen deeply into a routine that Walker clearly doesn’t enjoy. That night, however, someone pulls into the other driveway with a U-Haul. No children, but they have a dog, and immediately Belushi is on the defensive. When the doorbell rings Belushi looks over as if it’s Dracula, and once he invites him inside he will forever be cursed. Instead it’s Cathy Moriarty, acting as the seductress, and completely reels Belushi in. When Dan Aykroyd shows up, blond and leisure suited, he takes money from Belushi for take-out, and cooks the spaghetti in his own kitchen, while Belushi’s wife gives their steaks to the neighbor’s dog. Add to that accidentally dumping their truck into the swamp and being blackmailed by Moriarty, and the night is quickly turning into a nightmare. It wouldn’t be as bad if his wife was on his side, but Belushi is all alone. The plot takes place in a mere twenty-four hours but Belushi’s character goes through an unexpected arc to the point where he eventually becomes physically isolated as well, which accounts for the decisions he makes at the end of the story.

The film is wonderfully funny right from the outset, and one immediately notices Bill Conti’s contribution to the production is essential. It’s a Mickey Mouse score, to be sure, but there are lots of moments of intelligence. When entering the cul-de-sac he underscores it with a crooked version of “No Place Like Home,” and when Belushi is looking out the window through the sheers at the lights in the neighbor’s house, he has the "Twilight Zone Theme" playing on the piano. Belushi does a masterful job in going back and forth with his character, at once outraged by the antics of Aykroyd and Moriarty, and alternately seduced by them into trying to make friends. Dan Aykroyd is less impressive, basically playing a character from a sketch on Saturday Night Live. It would take a couple more decades before he began to be cast in straight roles as a character actor of any distinction. Cathy Moriarty is breathtaking in only her second film, after having made a big entrance into pictures in Raging Bull the year before. Kathryn Walker is a television actress who had an anonymous quality that is just what the part calls for. Nevertheless, she’s a strong actress and does a good job as support--in terms of acting--for Belushi. The other familiar face is Tim Kazurinsky as the tow truck operator, who had just joined the cast of SNL that year.

By far the weakest part of the film--and something that was rightly criticized at the time--is the direction. John Avildson had received a lot of recognition for directing the Oscar-winning Rocky, and would go on to helm the successful Karate Kid franchise. But here he is out of his element. In a film that calls for a certain amount of surrealism and an emphasis on paranoia, he simply shoots everything straight. It’s not necessarily bad, but it comes nowhere near to realizing the story's potential in a cinematic way. From all accounts, this was not an easy film, and Belushi and Aykroyd wielded their considerable popularity to try everything from creating their own soundtrack with the punk band Fear, to having Avildson fired. The producers on the film, however, were the formidable team of Richard Zanuck and David Brown, and they were not about to be bullied by TV personalities. The production also had to deal with Belushi’s drug use, something that would kill him before he had the opportunity to make another film. Neighbors is a black comedy that has pretensions of social commentary, which is the part of the screenplay that hasn’t aged well but, when allowed to be seen for what it is, can be enjoyed as a terrific comedic romp with two major talents.

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