Director: John G. Avildsen
Cast: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Kathryn Walker
Synopsis: A quiet man’s peaceful suburban lifestyle is threatened by the new, obnoxious couple that moves in next door.
Adapted from the satirical novel by Thomas Berger (who also wrote the novel on which Little Big Man was based), Neighbors saw the reunion John Belushi (Shame of the Jungle, Goin’ South) and Dan Aykroyd (50 First Dates, Get On Up) following the success of their cult comedy-musical The Blues Brothers. They play against type in Neighbors, with wild man Belushi as Earl Keese, a buttoned-down wage slave trapped in a loveless marriage and a life that’s going nowhere, and who has literally reached the end of the road, living in one of two houses situated beneath faltering power lines at the end of a remote cul-de-sac. The comparatively reserved Aykroyd, his haired dyed peroxide blonde, plays Vic, a wild free spirit unbound by social conventions. It’s a switch that is unexpectedly effective, although, while Belushi is a surprisingly sympathetic straight man, Aykroyd has to work hard to prevent Vic from becoming nothing more than a cipher.
The Keeses lead uneventful lives. Their evenings are spent largely in silence in front of the TV since their daughter left home for college. However, the arrival of new neighbours Vic and Ramona (Cathy Moriarty – Raging Bull) changes all that. Within minutes of introducing herself, Ramona is lying naked in the Keeses bed. While Earl anxiously attempts to prevent his wife from finding her, Vic fleeces him for $30 for a takeaway from an upmarket restaurant but then concocts the meal at home instead. These incidents mark the beginning of a catalogue of calamitous events, none of which are particularly funny, but all of which serve to deepen Earl’s intense mistrust and dislike of his new neighbours.
Quite how or why Earl’s attitude towards Vic and Ramona softens for Neighbors’ final act is something of a mystery. A story built around a voyage of self-discovery – particularly one as turbulent as Earl’s – should really chart the milestones of that voyage succinctly enough to allow the viewer to either trace its steady progress or identify the lightbulb moment that precipitated its protagonist’s shift in perspective. Neighbors does neither. Earl simply shifts from despising his new neighbours – Vic, in particular – to embracing their hare-brained philosophy on life and acquiring a new self-assertiveness, the dormant existence of which was never even hinted at during the scenes in which his irritatingly passive nature saw him being pushed around by everyone – including his wife and daughter. There’s nothing wrong with a character experiencing a 180′ turnaround in attitude and behaviour, but there has to be some nascent stirrings to begin with, otherwise any transformation simply feels forced.
Normally, it would be the credited writer and director who would be blamed (at least by me), but on this occasion the bulk of the blame appears to rest with Belushi and Aykroyd. They both clashed with director John G. Avildsen (whose comedy track record wasn’t strong, to be fair) and even unsuccessfully demanded that he be removed from the picture. They also extensively re-wrote Larry Gelbart’s screenplay, despite his objections, while Avildsen’s relationship with the film’s producers was less than smooth. None of this is conducive to a harmonious vibe on set, so its hardly surprising the film doesn’t really work. Having said that, Neighbors is an absurdist comedy of despair, which can be hugely exasperating when poorly handled. So it’s to Neighbors’ credit that it never irritates or frustrates as much as it could have. At times there are even glimpses of what might have been had the creative forces involved been in accord from the outset. It’s still a dud – these are neighbors you really only want to visit once – but, under the circumstance, it’s probably a lot better than it deserves to be.
(Reviewed 29th March 2016)
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