The Girl Next Door really tells two stories - one more interesting than the other, but both funny and with certain insight. In the first, we meet Matthew Kidman (Emile Hirsch), a high school senior who laments his own very serious personality. While many of his peers are ditching school to hang out at the beach, Matthew concentrates on getting into a good college and Doing the Right Thing. He wants to be more carefree, but can’t. Then he meets Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert), the blonde hottie who moves in next door. She helps him to not be so uptight about everything, yet we somehow sense that she is attracted to (and envious of) his very centered lifestyle. The two improbably begin a quasi-relationship. Matthew eventually learns that Danielle is a former porn star trying to go straight.
In the second story, we meet Kelly (Timothy Olyphant), a sleazy porn producer who arrives in town to convince Danielle to come back to work. He’s initially amused by this 17-year old kid who claims to be in love with his rising star. For giggles, he even partakes in corrupting poor Matthew by taking him to strip clubs and convincing female peers that he’s a heavy-duty partier in nerd’s clothing. But then Kelly starts to blame Matthew when Danielle refuses to do porn again. He claims the kid is causing him to “lose money.” After being threatened and set up by the producer, Matthew and Danielle set up a scheme to give Kelly his ultimate comeuppance. Coincidentally, this occurs at the same time that Matthew is preparing a college-entry speech about “moral fiber” that could potentially earn him a scholarship. What he learns through his adventures helps him create that speech.
I say The Girl Next Door tells two stories because it starts off being about the former and ends up concentrating more on the latter. In the early scenes, we see Matthew and pals Eli (Chris Marquette) and Klitz (Paul Dano) lusting after female classmates who won’t even give them the time of day. When Danielle comes along, Matthew is knocked off his block – partially because of her sexuality, but also because she actually acknowledges him in something other than a pejorative manner. When he finds out she’s a porn star, he can barely handle it. The early scenes in the film hilariously explore the whole Madonna/whore phenomenon that many teenage boys (and more than a few grown men) are plagued with. Matthew is repelled by Danielle’s past, yet it also opens up the intriguing possibility in his mind that she might have sex with him.
There’s a very funny scene in which Matthew – having just made the discovery of his girlfriend’s tarnished past – comes home to find her chatting with his parents. His overactive imagine kicks into gear and he has a horrific daydream in which she sexually pleasures his father. You know, the whole concept of teenage sexuality is often misplayed in movies. It’s either used as the basis for cheap grossout comedy or it’s trivialized. For a while, The Girl Next Door aspires to be an honest depiction of the normal adolescent desire to achieve preconceived notions of sexual “experience.” Matthew wants a healthy, happy relationship but he also wants to have hot, wild sex with his neighbor. He’s torn between his heart and his genitals.
The movie is clever to introduce that idea, even if it never follows all the way through on it. Eventually story number two kicks in. Kelly and Matthew become adversaries and we wait to see if the kid can outsmart the adult. At this point, the story generally focuses more on getting laughs than on saying anything profound, yet there’s still something there that’s smart. Kelly at one point asks Matthew a question: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” That question is the basis for the film’s second story. Matthew, for the first time in his life, is forced to prioritize - to make a judgement about the things in his life and their importance to him. In the end, he does learn a lesson about moral fiber because he’s finally been placed in a situation that requires him to separate right from wrong. That’s a cool idea for a teen-centered comedy to convey, even if it’s not as cutting-edge as the earlier scenes suggest the film as a whole might have been.
I laughed quite hard at some of the scenes here. Although there’s a certain amount of raunchy humor, it never crosses the line the way, for example, Van Wilder did. The jokes are not here to fill out an obscenity quota. They offer glimpses into the characters or at least provide a bit of flavor.
It’s not hard to imagine that some people might be turned off by the entire subject matter, and I can totally understand that. One sticky issue the film conveniently sidesteps is the issue of Danielle’s age. Matthew is 17; we’re told Danielle is 19. It’s questionable at best whether a former adult film star should be romancing a minor, regardless of the fact that there’s only two years age difference between them. Similarly, one has to wonder how old Danielle was when she first started doing porn. Even if she was 18, there’s still something creepy about it. In another scene, Kelly entices some high school girls to consider a career in adult film acting. I have no doubt such a guy would do that, although it’s not necessarily a concept this movie needed to introduce.
Despite that nagging uneasiness in the back of my head, I was able to mostly enjoy The Girl Next Door. The performances are all quite good. Emile Hirsch captures adolescent longing with skill, Elisha Cuthbert is believeable as both a teenage object of lust and a young woman longing for a more respectable way of life, and Timothy Olyphant is hilarious as the porn producer, avoiding all the standard tough-guy clichés in favor of raging charisma.
The Girl Next Door won’t be for everybody, that’s certain. However, it does bring up some ideas about youthful sexuality and its importance in determining the kind of adults we ultimately become. The movie never provides any groundbreaking answers, but I give it credit for at least posing the questions.
( out of four)
The Girl Next Door is rated R for strong sexual content, language and some drug/alcohol use. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.
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