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The Girl Next Door

Director: Luke Greenfield
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Elisha Cuthbert, Nicholas Downs, Timothy Olyphant, Sung Hi (Ulysses) Lee, Chris Marquette, Paul Dano, Amanda Swisten, James Remar

(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 9 Apr 2004; 2004)

Unrisky Business

Accepted at Georgetown, 18-year-old Matthew (Emile Hirsch) idolizes JFK and worries he has nothing to “remember” about high school. At the start of The Girl Next Door, he’s daydreaming of academic triumphs while his jockishly handsome classmates are planning their next trip to the beach with girls in bikinis. He thinks he wants to go, too, but he’s scared he’ll get caught skipping. He’s a good kid, with a future to fret about. And so he sits in the parking lot, frustrated, still lacking a decent memory from his time at Westport High School.


And then he sees her, the titular Girl Next Door. For a couple of weeks anyway, Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) is housesitting for her vacationing aunt. Matthew watches her unpack her curvy little Volkswagen convertible, then calls his best friend Eli (Chris Marquette). (As she sways into Matthew’s life/line of vision, the soundtrack plays Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” now ruined for any other use after its stint in Donnie Darko: “Your lips a magic world, / Your sky all hung with jewels”). Eager to describe her perfection (Danielle appears in the bedroom window across the way from his), Matt endures Eli’s counter-commentary on the latest porn video he’s watching. “It really freaks me out when you watch that while you’re talking to me,” whines Matt, just before he has to hang up. Danielle is undressing.


The American Pie-derived adolescent boy jokes run out of steam early here. Danielle catches Matt looking, then invites him out for a drive in that cute Bug; she’s new in town, and wants him to “show her around.” She, of course, will show him a few things, in the car and a diner booth, including the observation that his most effective means to a memorable senior year will be “a girl.”


She seems the ideal candidate, both because and though she turns out to be a porn star, looking to “go straight.” That is, for all the salaciousness that the film pretends, this good girl is really good: her steamiest moments are imagined by Matt, whose embarrassment at dating a porn star (he tells Eli that he wouldn’t think of “fucking” her) is rivaled only by his giddy geek-boy interest. Danielle, for her part, is drawn to Matty’s innocence, or more to the point, what this says about her. Still, she can’t help but tweak that innocence just a little, encouraging him to be more adventurous, daring him to skip school, go swimming in his principal’s backyard pool, and “just go with it.” Cue sweet montages in the car, in the diner, in his room while he studies and she listens to music.


Wholly predictable (as it’s an explicit if uncredited remake/rip-off of Risky Business), Luke Greenfield’s follow-up to The Animal establishes the romance for a minute, then pulls the rug out from beneath it when Matty behaves badly. (It’s not his fault though; he’s only following the advice of his porn-instructed friend Eli, who advises him to “tap that ass” in a skanky motel). Understandably put off by this abrupt change in her nice-guy beau, Danielle also sees herself mirrored in Matty’s childish expectation and insecurity: she’ll never be anything but a porn star. “It’s who I am,” she pouts.


She’s further persuaded to see herself this way by the other man in her life, loutish and oddly charismatic porn producer Kelly (Timothy Olyphant, who wears his spiky hair and plaid slacks with admirable élan). The morning after Matty’s bad behavior (which leaves him in the motel parking lot, “un-fucked”), Kelly arrives to fetch “D” and scuttle her back to porn-land. The cad!


The film, written by Stuart Blumberg, David T. Wagner, and Brent Goldberg, spends some slow time lurching about when Danielle exits for prolonged periods, as Kelly pretends to bond with Matty and Matty believes him because, oh, because teenaged boys just can’t see themselves clearly, no matter how hard they try or how many clues they’re given. Matty goes to the strip bar, smokes a cigar, and rides around with his new pal, unable to imagine that what D actually likes about him is that he is unlike Kelly. Matty’s pursuit of the girl of his dreams leads him and his fellow nerds, Eli and Klitz (Paul Dano, quite a bit taller than he was in the excellent L.I.E.), to the Adult Video Convention in Vegas, where they are duly impressed by sleazy porn king Hugo Posh (James Remar) and enticed to “feel” the silicone breasts of a wannabe starlet.


As the boys’ awe and awkwardness at the porn convention make for all kinds of easy gags, the focus on the romance slips sideways: putting on his best puppy dog look, Matty convinces Danielle to follow him home and attend prom with him. Even though she abruptly returns to town, the film persists in its adherence to the Risky Business blueprint, as Matty confronts a series of increasingly uninteresting obstacles embodied or caused by Kelly and Hugh. These include the requisite embarrassment in front of judgmental adults (a speech on “moral fiber” that Matty delivers while high on Ecstasy, in competition for his college scholarship) as well as the desperate and instantaneous need for cash. Here, Kelly steals the $25,000 that good boy Matty has long ago raised to bring Cambodian teen Samnang (Ulysses Lee) to attend school in the States (apparently, he’s a genius, “the next Einstein,” but he has little to do in the movie except smile for video camera missives to his would-be benefactor).


Eli and Klitz agree to help Matty because, as Eli the wannabe filmmaker puts it, a “tripod,” which leads to the film’s climactic gag, the apparent making of a porn film in the high school basement, during prom. But The Girl Next Door is not nearly so raucous as it fronts. For all its raunchy allusions and language (and bouncy porn star friends of Danielle’s), the film is essentially conservative, as Matt succeeds in romance and, importantly, business. Where the adults are consistently inept, ignorant, or dishonest, the kids are canny entrepreneurs.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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