Friday, July 9, 2010

Neighbors (Avildsen 1981)

I like to believe that in some alternate dimension, another version of the film Neighbors exists, written and directed by David Lynch with the same cast as the version of Neighbors that actually exists. In that mythic universe, we would likely have a film with a stronger understanding of the material its playing with, from the suburban middle class values and iconography that are sent up, to the fact that the film is finding its humour out of situations of sheer horror. This film would have also been the final work of John Belushi, and likely would have given him a high note to go out on with a performance that acknowledged his great talent and showed the range that most people never really took notice of during his life.

Unfortunately, in our reality, Neighbors is a film directed by John G. Avildsen, a competent filmmaker whose cinematic grasp never really extended pass the underdog sports film, which he made twice to great success (Rocky in 1976; The Karate Kid in 1984), and several other times to middling results (including The Karate Kid Part III in 1989; Rocky V in 1990). This real version of Neighbors, despite boasting some excellent performances and a script by Larry Gelbart (best known for running the television series version of M*A*S*H*), is a mess of a film, with a unbalanced tone, awkward direction and one of the most inappropriate scores I have heard for a film.

I don’t mean to pick on Avildsen, but it would be dishonest for me to say that I consider him anything more than a lesser talent. He is a competent director when he has the right script, and in the case of both Rocky and The Karate Kid, he was the right man, at the right place at the right time. However, with Neighbors, Avildsen is completely out of his depth, trying to force the material to be funny rather than trying to play it straight and allow the humour to develop naturally out of the horror.

In fact, that is the key thing which Avildsen misses with the film, that the film is first and foremost a horror story which happens to be funny. The film's narrative concerns Earl (John Belushi), a middle aged man who lives a dull life that is seemingly being systematically destroyed by the newly arrived neighbours (Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty) over the course of one night. The film is something of an early precursor to the late 1990s classic Fight Club (Fincher 1999), as Earl finds himself caught in a seemingly endless nightmare of trying to maintain his dignity, sanity and values in the face of the chaos his new neighbours bring, while still oddly being attracted to their anarchic behaviour and lifestyle. In order for the comedy to work, the repulsion and attraction that Earl feels towards his neighbours and their behaviour must be established. Unfortunately, in trying to emphasis the comedic aspects of the film, Avildsen ultimately sabotages his attempts to make the film funny.

Consider the score from frequent Avildsen collaborator Bill Conti, who manages to craft a selection of music that is memorable while being completely inappropriate for the film. Rather than working with the film as a whole, the Conti’s music overpowers the film, attempt to force the audience to find a scene funny or surreal with its mock Father Knows Best meets Twilight Zone sound. The music attracts attention to itself and never manages to feel like it belongs the film, instead coming across as some bad internet attempt at a joke dub that goes on throughout the entire film.

Luckily for Avildsen, not everything is a disaster, as Belushi actually manages to hold the film together almost single-handedly, giving a perfectly restrained performance that is far better than most film surrounding it. Belushi manages to make his Earl into a sympathetic figure, whose life is built on repressed feelings of disappointment and anger. Even more impressive however is Aykroyd, who manages to overcome the failure in direction to transform his character of Vic into a truly bizarre and sinister creature. Aykroyd’s work here is something of a watershed for him as an actor, pushing him farther than the amazing sketch comedian and straight man he had played thus far, and setting up the more dramatic performances he would later give. Unlike Belushi’s Earl, Aykroyd’s Vic is a character lacking in background and a cohesive sense of purpose, and Aykroyd’s patented mater-of-fact attitude which he brings to the role manages to give Vic a disturbing sense of purpose that another, lesser actor might have missed.

I am not sure however that I can recommend Neighbors based on the performances alone. At the end of the day, the film is little more than missed potential, and as a dark comedy is outdone by Joe Dante’s classic slice of suburban hell The ‘burbs (1989). Sadly, the best reason I can recommend it is to see Belushi giving his last ever role his all, effort that was ultimately in the service of a film that wasn’t worth it.

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