Animal House, Hell. I’m A Neighbors Kind Of Guy And Proud Of It.

I needed some laughs this morning, some cheering up, so I pulled some comedies off my DVD shelf and kicked back. First up, John Belushi’s final film, Neighbors (1981).

I realize a lot of Belushi fans hate this movie. Some common complaints about Neighbors I’ve heard over the years include:

“Not funny”.

“It doesn’t have a plot”.

“It’s boring”.

“The book was better”.

…all of which I disagree with completely. Having read the source novel, I think the movie’s far more vibrant, charming and entertaining. Unlike the movie, the novel just didn’t make much of an impression on me, except that it surprised me how uninteresting it was. I’d always heard otherwise. Not so.

The ‘no plot’ argument is a thin one, much like the movie’s plot itself. There is a plot, though; it’s a comedy of manners (amid the lack thereof), of behavior.

There’s certainly humor in the movie, both verbal and physical, so the ‘not funny’ criticism doesn’t hold water with me, either. Eye of the beholder, baby.

However, the one complaint I’ve heard over the years which I do agree with:

“The music in the movie sucks”.

It most certainly does. The original score by Tom Scott, deemed by Columbia executives as too dark and sounding like something from a horror movie, was scrapped at the last minute. 

An ambitious Neighbors fan on You Tube actually assembled several homemade¬†isolated score clips of the movie featuring excerpts of Scott’s score.

While the movie’s initial score takes a darker approach to the same material, it feels more appropriate than the score accompanying the picture’s release print.

Bill Conti, who’d scored Rocky for Neighbors director John G. Avildsen, was brought in at the last minute to write a replacement score to lighten the movie’s tone. Problem is, Conti went overboard with it, contributing a garish, obvious and cartoonish score reminiscent of a children’s movie.¬†

In the movie, Belushi’s bored suburban housewife is revealed as having a sort of swooning infatuation with Native Americanism. The audience doesn’t really discover this until near the end of the picture, but Conti’s score telegraphs it immediately, and repeatedly throughout the picture, with what I call “The Tonto Theme” (complete with thumping war drums). The result is some horribly on-the-nose, lazy storytelling.

The entire score, which is far too intrusive and clownish, is one reason, I’m convinced, the movie has such a bad rep among comedy fans; it’s constantly nudging the audience to laugh, (even during moments when the humor’s more subtle) instead of allowing the audience to discover the humor on its own.

Neighbors isn’t a whacky, laugh-out-loud comedy like Animal House, but Conti’s score tries its damnedest to convince you it is. And it fails.

I’d love to see the movie get a release with Scott’s orginal score, but I’m sure that’s never going to happen. Hell, just getting the movie on DVD, bare-bones at that, took far longer than I thought it would.

Anyway, Conti’s circus score aside, I still have a fondness for the movie. I enjoyed it the first time around, way back in early 1982 when I watched it in a near-empty theater at the age of 12. I’ve owned a home video copy of it since 1988 or 1989 and I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen the film, but, unlike other comedies of its era (late Seventies/early Eighties) which haven’t held up for me (*), this one has.

(*= I’m referring mostly to Stripes, which I loved as a kid. It was my second Comedy this morning, immediately following Neighbors. I was amused for a while, but barely made it through the movie. Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates and John Candy are all great in the movie, but too much of the picture’s humor doesn’t do anything for me now. Stripes is a nostalgic favorite– I have fond memories of watching it in the theater immediately after seeing Raiders Of The Lost Ark on the screen next door– but I don’t consider it a classic of the genre like I once did.)