Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 27, 2020)
With 1981’s Neighbors, John Belushi’s short film career came to an end. A founding castmember on Saturday Night Live, Belushi only appeared in seven movies before his untimely demise in March 1982.
Neighbors didn’t conclude Belushi’s time as a movie actor on a high note, at least not commercially. With $29 million, it ended up in 24th place in the 1981 US box office.
That’s not terrible, and it certainly betters the $15 million and 47th place of Belushi’s other 1981 flick, the more dramatic Continental Divide. Still, given that Neighbors reunited Belushi with SNL/Blues Brothers partner Dan Aykroyd and enjoyed a prime pre-Christmas release date, I suspect all involved expected stronger financial returns.
As he rapidly approaches middle age, Earl Keese (Belushi) lives in the suburbs with his wife Enid (Kathryn Walker) and teen daughter Elaine (Lauren-Marie Taylor). Though outwardly average, fissures exist beneath the surface.
Matters become more intense when the house next door gets sold. Vic Zeck (Aykroyd) and wife Ramona (Cathy Moriarty) become new neighbors to the Keese family.
Almost immediately, the Zecks uproot Earl’s life. Between Vic’s overbearing, obnoxious behavior and Ramona’s seductive stabs at infidelity, Earl struggles to maintain a hold on sanity.
If nothing else, Neighbors enjoys a strong pedigree. With Belushi, Aykroyd and Moriarty involved, we find talented actors at the fore.
In addition, Neighbors boasts John G. Avildsen – an Oscar winner for the original 1976 Rocky - as director. With Larry Gelbart – the creator of TV”s massively successful M*A*S*H - as screenwriter, the film should’ve been a sure thing creatively.
Alas, this doesn’t work out as hoped. Despite all the talent we find here, Neighbors ends up as a total disaster.
Start with Bill Conti’s score, arguably the most awful composition I’ve heard attached to a movie. Conti attempts to create laughs all on his own, and this leads to extreme “Mickey Mousing”.
Conti tosses out the Twilight Zone theme for the Zecks, and when we see Elaine, he brings an “Indians on the warpath” vibe to imply her antagonism toward Earl. We ever get a wolf whistle when Ramona exposes herself to Earl.
How could an established pro like Conti create such a lame, tacky score? Perhaps he felt the need to spice up the proceedings, and I can’t really blame him, as the rest of the flick falters as well.
Avildsen seems like an odd choice for this sort of black comedy. With Rocky and 1984’s Karate Kid, Avildsen showed a talent for earnest underdog dramas, so I can’t figure out who thought he made sense for a dark comedy such as this.
Unsurprisingly, Avildsen shows no affinity for the material, and he seems completely at sea. A director with a stronger connection to comedy might’ve found some mirth here, but Avildsen fails to locate laughs.
Gelbart’s script hamstrings Avildsen, as it requires the movie to start at “11”. In a better constructed film, the characters would start out at a lower level and build toward their ultimate level of outrageousness, but the Zecks seem so out of control from the beginning that we find no room for growth.
It doesn’t help that Enid comes across as awful from Minute One as well, and even Earl never seems sympathetic. For any of this comedy to work, we need at least a minor bond with some of the characters, but as it stands we pretty much hate everyone from the get-go.
Belushi seems forced to constrain his natural personality, and he also feels too young for the part. Only 32 during the shoot, Earl needs someone a good decade older.
Aykroyd’s Vic comes across like a more natural match for the actor, but that doesn’t make his performance a success. He nails the abrasive side of Vic but fails to locate laughs.
Largely incoherent and annoying, Neighbors becomes a near complete failure. I don’t know how this mess made it to movie screens.