Thursday, May 25, 2017

NEIGHBORS (1981)



We all loved John Belushi at that time. We'd loved him during four years of Saturday Night Live, and we'd loved Animal House and The Blues Brothers. We quoted him endlessly, one of our favorite lines being, "That's the most fun you can have with your pants on." Even serious movie critics were falling for him, comparing him to Harpo Marx and other comedy madmen. As much as people loved Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, and others, I don't think any comic actor since then has been loved the way we loved Belushi. When we heard he'd died of a drug overdose at age 33 - I was in a pizza shop in Canton, Massachusetts when I heard the news - we were devastated. He was supposed to go into the '80s and '90s with us, and be the colorful eccentric that Bill Murray became.

Now the name Belushi draws no reaction from moviegoers. He's a vague ghost of the '70s. The comedies that came in his wake are considered gauche, causing critic James Wolcott to grouse in a 2012 Vanity Fair article that "Hollywood comedy has become a plague, a blight, and an affront to humanity." Belushi's movies now lurk in a kind of on-demand graveyard, usually in the free section next to titles like Ford Fairlane and She-Devil. But if dead rock stars can continue to inspire musicians, Belushi should, at least, be brought back into the conversation now and then.

His final movie, Neighbors, is fascinating to me, though it's generally dismissed as a major misfire. Even though I fully acknowledge its flaws, I love it.  I chuckle over David Ansen's review in Newsweek where he called Bill Conti's music "the year's most offensive score," and panned the movie as "a sour case of creative indigestion." Roger Ebert gave it a more sensible review, calling it "a truly interesting comedy, an offbeat experiment in hallucinatory black humor." Ebert added, "It grows on you." Honestly, it's no worse than any recent movie starring Seth Rogen.

It tells the weird tale of Earl Keese, played by Belushi, who was trying to shed his comic image. With his conservative wardrobe, fancy prescription glasses, and the way he sank into his favorite chair to watch television, he was the embodiment of the suburban male, circa 1981. We watched him closely, trying to read him, looking for signs of the comic lunacy we'd come to crave.  Conti's music, a mix of jaunty trombone and variations of the old Twilight Zone intro, only confused us. New neighbors have moved in next door - Keese's family live on a curious dead end road where only two houses stand - and Earl is leery. "No kids," he says, relieved.

Thomas Berger, who wrote the novel on which the movie was based, had written a fast-moving but offbeat story about a man whose stable life is interrupted by the strange couple next door. It was a sort of fable, darkly comic and unsettling. Berger was saying something about the precarious nature of our lives and the things we hold dear; we may think we're one way, but we could easily be another way. Earl grows to love the people responsible for destroying his life.

The movie is less interested in the book's themes and merely wants to make use of the team of Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Aykroyd is Vic, the new neighbor, a shady loudmouth with dyed blonde hair and the mannerisms of someone who had attended too many "swinger" parties. Earl knows Vic is untrustworthy - he even accuses his wife of staring at Vic's "unit" - but he's intrigued. Meanwhile, Vic's saucy young wife, Ramona, keeps popping up in various states of undress, filling Earl's head with nasty thoughts.

John Avildsen, hot from directing Rocky, took a lot of flack for Neighbors. How could he fail with the powerhouse pair of Belushi and Aykroyd? Even during shooting, Belushi tried to have him fired. Watching the movie recently alerted me to what may have been wrong -  no one could decide exactly what sort of comedy was being made. Ramona has a filthy mouth, and can't say anything without giving it a sexual overtone. As played by Cathy Moriarty, it's as if she'd stepped out of Carnal Knowledge. Then there are  scenes where Ramona is hiding in a bedroom, and Earl tries to keep his wife from seeing her, as if Avildsen is going for an old-fashioned screwball farce. Meanwhile, Aykroyd plays Vic as if he's already thinking of Doctor Detroit. Too many styles were butting up against each other.

Still, some of it works. Moriarty, in her first film since her Oscar nominated debut in Raging Bull, is delicious as Ramona. Only 21 at the time, she seemed to be channeling women from another era, Lauren Bacall, maybe, or Lizabeth Scott. As Vic, Aykroyd is a wonder of elastic expressions, postures, and growls. We never know if Vic is a good guy or a bad guy. Aykroyd seemed to enjoy keeping us guessing. Belushi huffs and puffs, caught in the whirlwind of it all. He'd originally been cast as Vic, but convinced Avildsen that he should play Earl. Belushi thought it would be a better showcase for his acting talents, but he's only half-successful; despite whitening his sideburns, he can't hide that he's still a nimble young man. At times he looks like he's playing an older character in a TV sketch.

The only quiet scenes for Belushi involve him watching television, where ugly news stories, horror movies, and commercials for funeral parlors keep him slightly dazed. The TV spots, incidentally, are voiced by Aykroyd, as if whatever had been keeping Earl satiated on the tube had been unleashed and was living next door. The news items are always tragic, with people dying in grisly ways.

Is death coming for Earl? Is that what Vic and Ramona are all about? Earl fights them at first, hates them, in fact, but he gradually accepts them, just as we do with impending death.

Legend has it that Belushi and Aykroyd took Larry Gelbart's adaptation of the Berger novel and rewrote it, desperate to inject this offbeat story with some laughs. (Gelbert filed a complaint with the Writers' Guild, but nothing came of it.) A bit where Earl overhears Vic threatening to dismember Ramona with a chainsaw sounds like Aykroyd's mind at work. ("You promised me! Just one leg!") And the climax, where Earl picks up his TV set and smashes it against the wall of his living room, feels like a too-little-too-late nod to fans of Animal House

What is usually forgotten in the folklore of Neighbors is that the movie turned a profit for Columbia. Belushi and Aykroyd had, as Belushi biographer Bob Woodward wrote, "turned Berger's dark piece of chamber music into a semi-rock concert," but no one can say the movie lost money.

Belushi was miserable during the making of Neighbors. He fought constantly with the director and producer, mostly over his demands for a punk rock soundtrack. It was here that he reportedly picked up his drug habit again after having kicked it, and caused several delays in filming because he was blitzed in his trailer. He'd be dead in less than a year. Yet, none of this is apparent in the movie. Maybe his talent was such that he could give a decent performance even as his body was loaded with drugs. Ironically, the filmmakers changed the ending of the book, where Earl dies. In the movie, he rides off to a new life with Vic and Ramona. It was the last time we'd see Belushi on film, and there he is, sitting next to his buddy Dan Aykroyd, looking to the future that we were supposed to share with him.


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