Neighbors (1981 film)
|Directed by||John G. Avildsen|
|Produced by||David Brown
Richard D. Zanuck
|Written by||Thomas Berger (novel)
Larry Gelbart (screenplay)
|Music by||Bill Conti|
|Editing by||Jane Kurson|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|Running time||94 minutes|
|Box office||$28,732,057 (USA)|
Neighbors is a 1981 film based on the book by Thomas Berger. It was released through Columbia Pictures, directed by John G. Avildsen and stars John Belushi as Earl, Dan Aykroyd as Vic (renamed from the novel's Harry), Cathy Moriarty as Ramona, Kathryn Walker as Enid, and Lauren-Marie Taylor as Elaine. The film takes liberties with Berger's story, and features a more upbeat ending. The screenplay of the film is officially credited to Larry Gelbart, although it was extensively rewritten, to Gelbart's public disapproval.
Earl Keese is a low-key, ineffectual, middle-class suburbanite with a wife, Enid, and a teenage daughter, Elaine. Earl's peaceful, dreary life changes when a younger couple, Vic and Ramona, move next door. The new neighbors impose themselves on the Keese household, leaving Earl infuriated with the loud, gung-ho Vic, and flustered by the sly and seductive Ramona. Earl is frustrated by his inability to handle them, and the way that he can never come up with absolute proof that the couple are doing anything wrong on purpose. Enid and Elaine are no help, and over the course of one night, the antagonism between Earl and his new neighbors escalates into suburban warfare. Earl begins to question his sanity, and the sanity of his wife and daughter. He realizes that his new neighbors have provided him with the most excitement he's had in years, and that they can give him a promising future out of suburbia and away from his family. In the film's closing scene, Earl joins Vic and Ramona, leaving his family behind and his house on fire.
Thomas Berger's bestselling novel, Neighbors, was published in 1980. Columbia Pictures acquired the rights to film the novel, and assembled a high-profile cast and crew: Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown had produced Jaws (1975); John G. Avildsen won an Academy Award for directing Rocky (1976); veteran comedy writer Larry Gelbart developed the hit TV series M*A*S*H (1972-1983); and John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were the stars of TV's Saturday Night Live (on which they appeared from 1975-1979) and the film The Blues Brothers (1980). The film's female leads were played by Cathy Moriarty, who made her film debut in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), and Kathryn Walker, who had been the girlfriend of Belushi's National Lampoon colleague Douglas Kenney (1946-1980).
The production of Neighbors was troubled. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd switched their roles in pre-production, acting against type (usual-wild man Belushi played the meek Earl and usual-straight-arrow Aykroyd played the obnoxious Vic). Belushi and Aykroyd also argued constantly with director John G. Avildsen (as they believed that he had no understanding of comedy), and lobbied to have him removed from the picture. Belushi wanted either Aykroyd himself or John Landis to direct the film. Avildsen also argued with producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, and screenwriter Larry Gelbart objected to the changes made to his screenplay by Dan Aykroyd. John Belushi's drug problems also impaired the film's production. As for Avildsen, he struggled with a film that would be his third comedy behind both Joe and Cry Uncle!; on these two films, many critics felt they were wild and funny films about how much American society and people had changed.
Tom Scott was originally assigned to compose the score for Neighbors but was replaced by Avildsen's frequent collaborator Bill Conti. John Belushi unsuccessfully tried to have the film finish with a song written and performed by the punk rock group Fear (Belushi had discovered the band and brought them to Cherokee Studios to record songs for the film). Music producing partners Steve Cropper and Bruce Robb remember recording the band's music, but nobody knows exactly what happened with the final soundtrack which was ultimately replaced in the film by Conti's more traditional movie score. "How can I describe what it was like recording in the early days of punk?" said music producer and Cherokee owner Bruce Robb. "We had decided to track the song selection in order, and were on track 4 before the band realized they were all using different set lists. The irony is we couldn't tell." Upset with Belushi's antics and believing that Fear's music was inappropriate for Neighbors, the movie studio eventually forced the band off the soundtrack project. To make up for it, Belushi got them a guest spot on Saturday Night Live.
Critical and box office response
For one test-version of the film, the head of Columbia Pictures, Frank Price, made the contentious decision to have quotations from positive press reviews of Berger's book assembled into a caption that would serve as a prologue to the film (this move prompted an angry missive from Dan Aykroyd). The final version of Neighbors was released to cinemas in December 1981. Although Neighbors was not a commercial flop, it received harsh reaction from both critics and from some fans of Belushi and Aykroyd, who were perhaps expecting a comedy closer to The Blues Brothers. It still received a fresh rating of 67% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Thomas Berger's paranoid comic novel could have been made a fascinating movie in the hands of, say, Roman Polanski, who knows how to make a comedy of menace. John G. Avildsen (Rocky) doesn't have a clue: you can't twist reality if you can't establish a reality to twist. Belushi and Aykroyd obviously got cast because they're "bankable," but no one seems to have asked if they were appropriate. The parts demand subtle comic acting – they do TV turns. Just how much blame falls on Larry Gelbart's disjointed script is hard to say (Avildsen could make any writer look bad), but without question Bill Conti has come up with the year's most offensive score – a cattle prod of cartoonish cuteness that only underlines the movie's desperate uncertainty of tone. The ads for Neighbors call it "a comic nightmare;" it's more like a sour case of creative indigestion.
On the other hand, Roger Ebert, reviewing for the Chicago Sun-Times, awarded the film three stars out of four, and wrote that "Neighbors is a truly interesting comedy, an offbeat experiment in hallucinatory black humor. It grows on you." Ebert also wrote approvingly of Belushi and Aykroyd as the leads, citing it as "brilliant casting, especially since they divided the roles somewhat against our expectations." In his book Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary wrote, "I think this surreal comedy is imaginatively done, and perfectly conveys the lunacy of the two comics...I'm glad they went against type because both actors are at their absolute best." Peary argued that the "final picture is faithful to Thomas Berger's zany, satirical novel" but noted that he prefers "the film's happier ending."
Neighbors was John Belushi's last film; he died in March 1982, less than four months after the film's release. It was during filming this movie that he relapsed into drug addiction. A comprehensive look at the film's troubled production can be found in Bob Woodward's 1984 book, Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi and also in the 2005 book, Belushi: A Biography.
A billboard advertising the film can be seen on the original poster for "Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip"