Judge Patrick Bromley wishes he lived next door to a porn star, instead of some crazy old crone with 143 cats and a weird little man who plays the bassoon at all hours of the night.
What's the craziest thing you've done lately?
Yet another film to desperately throw its hat into the slowly fading teen-flick circle, trying to distinguish itself with liberal doses of sexuality and even more liberal stealing from its '80s predecessors.
Fox releases The Girl Next Door in both its R-rated theatrical cut and a new Unrated cut; this review refers to the Unrated version of the film.
Facts of the Case
Eighteen-year-old Matthew Kidman (Emile Hirsch, The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys) is on the fast track to success: He's the editor of his yearbook, the president of the Student Council, and is about to graduate at the top of his class to attend Georgetown University in the fall. Yessir, he's got it all together—that is, until Danielle (24's Elisha Cuthbert), a sexy older neighbor, moves in next door and begins to turn Matt's world upside down.
For its first half-hour, The Girl Next Door looks as though it's going to be the best teen comedy since 1995's Clueless. The opening moments, set to Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure," perfectly capture those last few days of high school: nostalgic and reflective, anxious to move forward while at the same time wishing to freeze the present—it's all there. As Matt begins his uneasy relationship with Danielle, we know that we've seen it before—straitlaced boy meets wild girl who pushes and challenges him—but the performers are sincere and the sense of mystery developed enough that we're excited to go where the film is taking us. Like Matt, we're Ready for the Ride.
At this point, the film introduces its "secret," which, if you don't already know, I'll advise that you stop reading. But seeing as every trailer and TV spot for the film gleefully gives it away—practically building the marketing campaign around it—I'm not going to bother tiptoeing around it. The secret is that Danielle is a porn star, and recently moved to get out of the business—hence ending up next door to Matt (so that's where the title comes from!). From the moment this particular plot point is made known, the movie begins to fall apart. Fast. We meet Kelly (Timothy Olyphant, Scream 2), Danielle's former producer-boyfriend, who forms a dangerous relationship with Matt. Olyphant is the best thing in the movie—a twitchier, funnier, and more intense version of his drug dealer in Doug Liman's Go, but his presence (and the occasional explosions of violence his character brings along) conjures up too many memories of Jonathan Demme's brilliant Something Wild. Unfortunately, that's one more rip-off than this movie can sustain. When you strip away all of its imitation, the only thing original that The Girl Next Door has to offer is smut.
From here, we launch from one badly misguided set piece into the next. By the time the high schoolers end up at the Adult Video Awards, there's really no going back—and that's before the "scholarship speech on Ecstasy" and "stealing the giant penis statue" sequences. It would appear we've done a complete 180. The teen comedies of the '80s were dirty only on the surface—underneath there was a sweetness, an innocence that let us know all that sex talk was just a put-on. In 2004, we've got The Girl Next Door, a teen comedy that wants us to believe it's really just a sweet romance, but in reality it can't get its sensibility out of the gutter. It doesn't even have the presence of mind to turn sex into a commodity (despite the fact that it's about porn) like the far superior Risky Business, the film it so desperately wants to be—at least that film used its obvious detachment to make a statement about '80s opportunism. There's no such ambition to be found in The Girl Next Door. To these kids, sex is no longer scary or awkward or exciting or promising—it's merely a cold, empty reality. This is the first teen sex farce seemingly inspired by the work of Larry Clark.
Elisha Cuthbert, as the titular character, acts only with her mouth: biting her lip, pouting, and giving the occasional smile to let us know she's "happy." It's not so much a performance as it is a series of expressions, but that's hardly Cuthbert's fault—hers is possibly the most nonexistent characterization of a female lead I've seen. Actually, once it's revealed that she's a porn star, she all but disappears from the film, showing up in scenes but not actually speaking. She becomes a plot point—set dressing, not a character. At least up until then, the film required something of her, even if it was just to be sexy (which Cuthbert does quite well) and to be lusted after by the other characters. It's one thing to label her as just a sex object, only to go out of your way to prove that there's more to her—a person with her own thoughts and feelings under the tight clothes and sexy figure. That's what the film wants us to believe it's saying, and it might even believe it too (especially if director Luke Greenfield's commentary track is any indication). In the reality of the movie, though, Cuthbert's a sex object and nothing more—she's treated no differently here than in one of the porn films her character is escaping.
There's the big problem with the movie. The best teenage sex-coms try to find the voice of the teenage boy, then tell the story through the lens of adult experience and maturity. The Girl Next Door, however, has no such lens—it's made not only for but apparently by horny adolescent males. The film exists solely on the level of the basest teenage fantasies; not only is the hot new neighbor a porn star, but she's got porn star friends, too—friends who will make out with one another in the back of a limo (in a film of less-than-subtle youth horndog imagery, this one wins the prize). In fact, there's not a single woman in the film who isn't viewed in sexual terms—and usually it's only in those terms; even Matt's mother gets in on a little girl-girl action. The perception of women visible throughout The Girl Next Door is what moves it beyond crass or derivative and into dangerous territory; that it's essentially dishonest about its motives and messages makes it even more offensive.
And yet, for all its flaws, the movie is deceptive—while you're watching it, it seems like an okay time. It's well acted, for the most part; save for Cuthbert's non-performance and an extremely disappointing turn by James Remar (48 Hrs.), the actors do the best they can with the material. Emile Hirsch is earnest, if a bit intentionally bland; Chris Marquette, whom I found terribly wooden as the nerd in Freddy vs. Jason, is so effective as the loud-mouthed, obnoxious, and hilariously vulgar Eli that he threatens to steal the whole movie (he would, too, if Olyphant weren't so good). Luke Greenfield directs the movie with a great deal of confidence and visual style—he's created what might be the best-looking and most stylish teen film of the past two decades. Plus, either Greenfield or his music supervisor ought to be applauded, not only for choosing great music (some of the best I've heard in recent film, including Queen/Bowie, Elliot Smith, Pete Yorn, and The Who to name a few), but also for having a Cameron Crowe-like knack for knowing how to use each song for maximum effect.
Fox's Unrated edition of The Girl Next Door (which restores a few bits of nudity not included in the original version, though I've seen the theatrical cut and could hardly tell the difference) in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, enhanced for 16x9 playback. Colors on the transfer seem a bit muted and the image is a tad darker than I would have liked; otherwise, the picture is crisp and detailed. The 5.1 audio track is acceptable but uninvolving—like most of the discs I've been watching lately, it's a dialogue-heavy mix that lacks much imagination in the separation department. Still, it will do just fine.
There are plenty of extras to be found on The Girl Next Door, though I couldn't really say that any of them have much value. In addition to the standard trailers, photo gallery, and production featurette, there's a gag reel (Ha! He/she forgot a line/messed up/started laughing!) and no less than sixteen deleted and extended scenes. Most of the material was best left out of the finished film, although there is an alternate ending that, while not entirely successful, at least attempts to add some sort of social statement or context to everything that's come before. It's clearly a more interesting coda, but may have been too direct a rip from Risky Business for anyone to feel comfortable with it. A subtitled trivia track, when selected, dispenses bits of information that rarely relate to the film in any way—usually it's things like "most lipsticks contain fish scales"; such is the legacy of Pop-Up Video. There's also a featurette called "The Eli Experience," in which an in-character Chris Marquette and camera crew storm around the real Adult Video Awards and get people to make asses of themselves—kind of a low-tech version of Punk'd. Again, Marquette's enthusiastic, but you'd have to really find public humiliation hilarious to get much of a kick out of this.
Several commentary tracks were recorded for the disc. Both Emile Hirsch and Elisha Cuthbert have recorded commentary over a few select scenes; Hirsch is useless, basically reporting what's on screen, but Cuthbert opens up a bit to touch upon some of her experiences in making the film. Director Luke Greenfield (Rob Schneider's The Animal) also has a commentary track, speaking over the entire film rather than just specific scenes. His talk begins on a high note: he informs us that he's had to re-record large sections of the track, and the Fox legal department insisted that certain comments be removed (though he never hints at what they were). From there, though, the track rapidly devolves into the worst kind of young director hubris—Greenfield is pretty clearly in love with the film and, more importantly, his contributions to it. Hearing him speak of all of the "work" that went into developing Cuthbert's character, or how he had made the film "mature" and "smart" and, worst of all, "honest" doesn't just sound like misguided artistic pride—it sounds like outright lying.
If you're the type of viewer who wants nothing but entertainment from a movie—or you really go in for these kinds of teen sex romps—you could do worse than The Girl Next Door. If, however, you're the type of viewer that tends to think about, process, or reflect upon the movie you've just seen, chances are you'll wind up disappointed and insulted with this one. You know which type you are.
The Girl Next Door is guilty of excessive juvenility, objectification, and misogyny; the Court mandates that it take some feminine sensitivity courses. And grow up, for crying out loud—they're just boobs.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary by Director Luke Greenfield
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