Girl Next Door, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Girl Next Door builds up enough good will during its successful first half that we're willing to forgive some of the strange and disappointing convolutions the plot takes us through during the final 45 minutes. There are two primary reasons why it's not hard to recommend this likeable (albeit raunchy) romantic comedy: director Luke Greenfield and his screenwriters have a genuine feel of what it's like to be a high school outsider, and it's been a long time since there has been as appealing a young couple as Emile Hirsch and Elisha Cuthbert. (He's 18 and she's 21, and they play characters who match their real-life ages.)

In tone and temperament, The Girl Next Door owes a greater debt to films like Risky Business than to the Animal House-inspired comedies that have grown in popularity over the last five years. The film is rated R, but it has a PG-13 sensibility. Tone down some of the sexual content and cut out the more overt nudity, and The Girl Next Door could easily play to a younger crowd. Unlike American Pie, it does not rely upon bawdy antics and bodily fluids. In fact, while there are several intensely embarrassing moments for the main characters, there's not a legitimate "gross out" incident to be found. (I found the funniest scene to be a dead-on accurate parody of an awkward, outdated school sex ed film.)

The protagonist is high school senior Matthew (Emile Hirsch), a quiet, studious boy who has used his education thus far as a stepping stone to the college of his choice, Georgetown. But, when it comes time to write down a memory for the yearbook, he realizes he doesn't have one. Instead of living, he has played it safe while at Westport High School, hanging out with his two best friends, Eli (Chris Marquette) and Klitz (Paul Dano). That all changes when Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) moves in next door. She's a blonde bombshell running away from a porn star past and eager to start afresh.

One night, Matthew spies her undressing through her bedroom window. Transfixed, he forgets the first rule of voyeurism - turn out the light in your viewing space - and, as a result, he gets busted. Danielle takes him for a little ride in her car, and demands tit for tat (so to speak). He saw her; now she gets to see him. So, in the middle of a suburban street, he strips down to nothing. Soon after, he's following her around like a lovestruck puppy. For her part, she finds something fresh and appealing about his innocence. But trouble arrives when her past becomes her present. A porn producer ex-boyfriend by the name of Kelly (Timothy Olyphant) arrives to bring her back to the business and to teach Matthew a few lessons from the school of hard knocks.

Among its best assets, The Girl Next Door can count its ability to get the audience to empathize with Matthew. One scene in particular stands out. Danielle has dragged Matthew to a party, and he finds himself at a crossroads. Two opposing impulses war for control of his mind and body. On the one hand, there's the urge to retreat - to back off and return to the position of safety offered by neutrality. On the other hand, there's the giddiness of charging headlong into the unknown, of losing oneself in an act that can be glorious or disastrous. For that moment, we're inside Matthew's head, experiencing the uncertainty and fear with him, and understanding the pull of both opposing forces. Because this is a movie, the choice is preordained, but the key here is that Greenfield makes us doubt the outcome for a second or two.

When the movie concentrates on the relationship between Matthew and Danielle, it's on firm ground, even when it ventures into Romantic Comedy 101 territory. The natural charisma and screen presence of the two stars has a good deal to do with this. Both Cuthbert and Hirsch have cut their teeth in television (she as a regular in "24" and he as a frequent guest star in numerous shows), but neither has trouble making the transition to the big screen. Not only are they easy on the eyes, but they are capable of developing their characters into multi-dimensional individuals. Hirsch becomes more than just a well-groomed nerd, and Cuthbert transcends the totally hot sexpot.

The Girl Next Door runs into a few potholes during its second half, which requires the plot to go through all sorts of contortions to prevent Matthew and Danielle from finding happiness too early. So we get scenes with the creepy Kelly, the even creepier porn kingpin Hugo Posh (James Remar), Matthew's ecstasy-enhanced speech about "moral fiber" and sacrifice, and a prom night to remember. Some of this works, and some doesn't. And there are times, thanks to the filmmakers' overuse of slow motion photography, when it feels like we're watching a sports movie. In a way, maybe that's what the pairing of these two is, because it's hard not to be rooting for Matthew and Danielle to reach the finish line arm-in-arm, with hands clasped and lips locked.

Girl Next Door, The (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2004-03-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1