[30 August 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
It was more of a teen sex farce when I first read it. So we kind of took this broad script and ground it into reality.
—Luke Greenfield, commentary track, The Girl Next Door
When you’re in a theater and he asks right now for a blow job, everyone going, “Oh, god, no, no, no.” And it kind of goes from being scary, to letting him off the hook.
—Luke Greenfield, commentary track, The Girl Next Door
The first moments of director Luke Greenfield’s commentary for the DVD of The Girl Next Door are wholly intriguing: “I’ve been excited to do this commentary for a long time now, and it kind of sucks a second time here in spots because I legally wasn’t allowed to say certain things.” Okay, now you’re listening. But no, he’s bound by those legalities, and you never know what he said or why he couldn’t say it.
The film begins by introducing just how hard it is to be in high school—a good and difficult thing for adults to remember. Feeling “Under Pressure,” as Bowie’s song reminds you, protagonist Matthew (Emile Hirsch) is feeling that his high school career has been wasted, nothing but hard work and making deadlines. “He’s barely kissed a girl,” observes Greenfield. “He wants adventure in his own world. Writing is always autobiographical, and yes there’s a lot of me and my high school, Staples High School, in Westport, Connecticut… I went to school with a bunch of jackasses.”
Greenfield’s commentary is consistently energetic and charming, as he proclaims his devotion to U2, and loves his actors (one being his mom: “Look at that! It’s so real”). He also insists repeatedly that he wanted to make movie about a kid headed on a “wild ride,” a mature movie and not a teen movie (this is made clear by the more explicit sex images in the unrated version, but thematically, it’s also refreshingly complex). The DVD includes a subtitle trivia track that complements his own observations, and, on the disc’s flipside, several Hirsch and costar Elisha Cuthbert offering their own comments for selected scenes; “The Eli Experience,” where Chris Marquette goes to the AVN Awards in character; a vague making-of featurette called “A Look Next Door”; some extra footage and outtakes, as well as 16 deleted and extended scenes, with Greenfield’s commentary.
In fact, his observations go a long way toward making the film worth seeing again on DVD. 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 house-sitting 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 and line of vision, the soundtrack plays Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon”: “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-ish adolescent boy jokes run out of steam early, but, as Greenfield points out in his commentary, the film does have something else going on: Matthew is a completely good kid, only yearning to have the awesome experience he imagines his peers are having. 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.
Formulaic, the film establishes the romance for a minute, then pulls the rug out from beneath it when Matty learns Danielle is a porn star, (imagining her as a “disease” that’s infecting his household, as Greenfield says), and then 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. “Here’s a boy,” says Greenfield, “meeting The Man.” Greenfield makes this point again and again: he’s only 18! And that’s why his choices are difficult, why his reactions are youthful, and why you can appreciate—as Greenfield does emphatically—the delicacy of his performance, especially in relation to Cuthbert and Oliphant.
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), 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 (Greenfield calls them “the three little pigs” going into the porn world), 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. It is more complicated than it seems, however, especially in the schizzy characterization of Kelly—“Is the juice worth the squeeze?” he asks Matty, by way of instruction, taunting, and terrorizing. For all its raunchy allusions and language, 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.