The Girl Next Door
Director : Luke Greenfield
Screenplay : Stuart Blumberg and David T. Wagner & Brent Goldberg (story by David T. Wagner & Brent Goldberg)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Emile Hirsch (Matthew Kidman), Elisha Cuthbert (Danielle), Timothy Olyphant (Kelly), James Remar (Hugo Posh), Chris Marquette (Eli), Paul Dano (Klitz), Timothy Bottoms (Mr. Kidman), Donna Bullock (Mrs. Kidman), Jacob Young (Hunter), Brian Kolodziej (Derek), Brandon Iron (Troy), Amanda Swisten (April), Sung Hi Lee (Ferrari), Ulysses Lee (Samnang), Harris Laskaway (Dr. Salinger)
It’s rare that a movie is simultaneously so good and so bad, so intelligent and so stupid, and so sweet and so crass, but The Girl Next Door, a teenage male fantasy come to life, fits that bill. In strictly generic terms, it is a teenage sex comedy clearly poured from the Risky Business (1983) mold, but it branches out in so many directions that it defies any simple descriptions.
The main character is Matthew Kidman (Emile Hirsch), a high-achieving senior who bemoans the fact that he isn’t doing anything to commemorate his final weeks of high school. While all the popular kids ditch school every afternoon to party at the beach, he dutifully goes to class and goes about his business as the student council president, which also involves raising money to bring a brilliant Cambodian teenager over to the states to study (that sounds like a strange side detail, but it becomes a crucial plot point). Matthew’s two best friends are horny film geek Eli (Chris Marquette) and shy Klitz (Paul Dano). As a trio, they’re guaranteed no action whatsoever.
That all changes when the sumptuously cute Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) moves in next door to Matthew to house-sit for her aunt. Matthew is immediately smitten—and what red-blooded heterosexual wouldn’t be?—and his life takes a turn for the better when Danielle turns her attention to him. She’s obviously older than he is and more experienced, but their relationship is oddly believable: She gives him the chance to act wild and crazy the way he has always wanted to, and he offers her honesty and genuine affection.
Turns out, though, that Danielle used to be a porn star, which is the first of the movie’s major fantasy elements. After all, how many porn stars have the scrubbed, fresh-faced, but deliriously sexy look of Elisha Cuthbert? Most of them are more plastic than flesh and blood, with the skanky porn star look you can spot from 200 yards out. But, not Danielle. No, she’s the ultimate male fantasy because she defies the typical dichotomy: She’s the innocent and the vamp wrapped up in one, perfect, unthreatening package. Every time Danielle gives Matthew one of those looks, it works simultaneously as flirty girlishness and naughty innuendo. Yet, when Matthew follows Eli’s bad advice and takes her to a cheap hotel room for their first sexual tryst (something he is clearly uncomfortable doing), we feel genuinely bad for Danielle. “Is that all you think of me?” she cries, which is a stark reminder of the double standard by which female sexuality is judged in our society, even if the circumstances here are a bit extreme.
At this point, The Girl Next Door is a surprisingly good movie, balancing its often laugh-out-loud raunchy comedy with an aura of sweetness and palpable affection for its characters. Then, Danielle’s former producer, Kelly (Timothy Olyphant), shows up and tries to woo Danielle back to the world of porn, and the movie’s narrative starts getting too complex for its own good. On the bright side, Olyphant gives the movie’s best performance, turning the spiky-haired Kelly (he looks not a bit unlike Sid Vicious) into a villainous charmer who’s pretending to be Matthew’s new best buddy one minute and then lashing out into sudden violence the next. He’s a volcano of a character, and you’re never sure whether he’s being genuine or just putting on another act.
Things get more and more complicated when Matthew, Eli, and Klitz go to a porn convention in Las Vegas to retrieve Danielle from Kelly’s clutches. This incenses Kelly, who makes it his mission to get back at Matthew. After a lot of other contrived developments, it all comes down to the guys (with help from Danielle and two of her porn friends) having to film an adult movie in the school during prom in order to raise money that Kelly stole (remember the Cambodian kid? Check.). The movie’s third act continues on, though, and as it gets more and more implausible, you find yourself thinking back wistfully to the movie’s opening segments, which captured the confusing tumult of high school life and frustrated male sexuality better than any movie in recent years. (There are some great gags near the end though, including a trained attack parrot and a porn version of an Oscar for a movie called Chitty Chitty Gang Bang).
The Girl Next Door is certainly rooted in a particular and simplistic teenage male fantasy, but it frequently transcends it with real understanding of its characters. Emile Hirsch, who evidences even more Leonardo DiCaprio-like characteristics than he did in The Emperor’s Club (2002), was a great casting choice for Matthew. Looking a few years younger than 18, yet fully plausible as a high school senior, he captures that inner conflict between wanting to throw your youth on the pyre of partying and knowing that the best things in life are earned through work and dedication.
However, it’s easy to see why he would be willing to throw it all away for someone like Danielle. As played by Elisha Cuthbert, she is the fantasy come to life, and you can completely believe that Matthew would trash his oft-practiced scholarship speech and define moral fiber by his dedication to her. If the movie had focused its humor more on these basic issues of life and love and been less distracted with its third-act plot gymnastics, it would have easily been one of the best teen comedies in years.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Fox 2000 Pictures