Judge Victor Valdivia mercilessly torments his neighbor, mostly just by being his generally unpleasant self.
In a not-too-distant suburb on a very quiet street…
What do you get when you mix two hugely popular comedy icons, an Academy-Award-winning director, and a respected screenwriter? Theoretically, you should get a better movie than this one, even if you can't call it boring.
Facts of the Case
Earl Keese (John Belushi, 1941) is an older corporate drone who lives with his wife Enid (Kathryn Walker, Slap Shot) in a quiet Long Island suburb. When Vic (Dan Aykroyd, Nothing But Trouble) and Ramona (Cathy Moriarty, Raging Bull) move in next door, Earl and Enid are intrigued, until Earl realizes that Vic and Ramona alternate between being disturbingly peculiar and downright unhinged. As Earl tries to ride out the night that Vic and Ramona come over for dinner, he is forced to deal with his skeptical wife, bizarre townspeople, and the prospect of losing his house and sanity.
Let's get something straight: Neighbors is not a great movie, or even a particularly good one. It is, however, an interesting one, if only for reasons that are only partly related to what's onscreen. It's definitely not a movie to watch if you expect something easy to enjoy, but you certainly won't dismiss it as forgettable.
What Neighbors proves is that you can mix promising elements together for a film but that doesn't mean that the end product will turn out like you expected. Director John Avildsen (The Karate Kid) had scored an Oscar for Rocky just a few years earlier, screenwriter Larry Gelbart (who was the head writer for M*A*S*H) ended up winning an Oscar himself for writing Tootsie the next year, and John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were, of course, the hottest comedy stars of the era. Yet the film isn't exactly a "comedy," if by "comedy" you mean "a movie that will make you laugh out loud." What it is exactly is hard to discern—there are too many talented people about to make it less than intriguing, but it's not a film that's easily palatable, even if you have a taste for the offbeat.
Part of the problem is that Avildsen is possibly the worst possible choice to direct this material. For all his undeniable ability to create drama and tension, Neighbors makes a strong case that he cannot direct comedy, especially dark comedy. He has no comic timing and his hamfisted lack of subtlety means that every joke is not only poorly delivered but telegraphed years in advance. The choice of Avildsen was by no means a popular one even within the production; both of the most famous Belushi biographies, Bob Woodward's Wired and Judy Belushi Pisano's and Tanner Colby's Belushi detail the troubled, sometimes contentious shooting of the film. Belushi and Avildsen fought constantly over what the film's tone should be and those battles made the film a nightmare for all involved. You can see the effects of those clashes onscreen in scenes that seem uncertain what they want to be; are they meant to be subtle and dark comedy or just straight-ahead dramatic?
Similarly, there's also no real narrative tension. Ideally, we should get the feeling that Earl's disastrous night is increasingly threatening his sanity and future, but each scene exists independently of each other. Instead of building on each scene, Neighbors has a disjointed structure that lurches about without really hitting any rhythm. It just sort of meanders until it lands onto an ending that's not particularly satisfying, which is not surprising when you realize that it was essentially an unhappy compromise because none of the creative principals could agree on any other ending.
By far the worst element, however, is the musical score by Bill Conti (Rocky). This is arguably the worst score ever composed for a major motion picture. It's loud, cutesy, and obvious, flattening much of the possible humor. Rather than use subtle cues to draw viewers into the humor, the blaring trombones and overbearing violins just make the humor seem childish. The score was another casualty of the fractious relationship between Belushi and Avildsen: Belushi's first choice for composer, sax player Tom Scott, clashed with Avildsen; he was fired and replaced by Conti just before the film's release. Whether the last-minute change had an effect on Conti's score is debatable, but there's no denying that this cartoonish music typifies Avildsen's discomfort with the film. As with his direction, Avildsen seems to lack confidence in the material and uses the score to elbow the audience repeatedly to laugh. It's yet another missed opportunity in a film that deserves better.
Sony has released Neighbors using the DVD-R technique used by Warner Archive for their lesser titles. This means that it won't play on some DVD players, especially computer DVD-R drives. The anamorphic transfer is decent, though no extensive re-mastering was done. Similarly, the Dolby stereo mix is pretty good as well. There are no extras, not even menus.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As flawed as Neighbors is, at least it was a creative gamble for the filmmakers. It's an especially interesting departure for Belushi and Aykroyd, particularly in their performances. The decision to cast Belushi as the buttoned-down Earl and Aykroyd as the loutish Vic is inspired, resulting in performances that are unlike any they ever gave in their previous films. Remarkably, both actors commit fully to their characters, even if the script and direction frequently lets them down. There are also a handful of genuinely funny scenes, almost all of which involve these two actors (the remaining cast isn't really given much to do, unfortunately). Both men know just how to bring out the best in each other, making this a film that their fans should see at least once, though they should be warned to expect something very different from anything else in both actors' careers.
Neighbors is an ambitious experiment from two comic actors at the height of their fame. It doesn't really work, mainly because none of the creative principals were ever able to agree on what the film should be, but it's still worth watching for Belushi and Aykroyd fans. In many ways, it shows what Belushi could have done in his career if he'd been given the chance to experiment artistically more before his death (he died only three months after the film was released). It also gives Aykroyd a chance to create a truly uncompromising character more in league with his most audacious Saturday Night Live work. It's not for everybody (it's certainly not the place to start if you've never seen Belushi or Aykroyd before), but even though it's hard to like, Neighbors still deserves credit for trying.
Guilty of being unsure of what it wants to be, but let off with a fine because it's at least an interesting misfire.
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