Porn Again

The Girl Next Door looks familiar, but at least her admirers are new

It's a measure of continual cultural desensitization that The Girl Next Door plays like a remake of 1983's Risky Business, yet very little of it feels risky in the slightest. Twenty years on, the notion of a high school student getting involved in the sex-for-pay business seems almost cute, rather than dangerous. Sure, the self-proclaimed morality mavens will have their fake coronaries over the whole thing, but to an audience that recognizes Ron Jeremy as much for TV's The Surreal Life as for the size of his member, outrage over something like this ought to feel quite pass.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with "adult" materials should instantly recognize the title as both Hugh Hefner's favorite catch phrase for his models and the name of a 1999 documentary about porn star Stacy Valentine. Of course, there's also the literal, more innocent meaning, and all connotations apply in this tale of play-it-safe honor student Matthew Kidman (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys' Emile Hirsch), whose involvement with mysterious and reckless neighbor girl Danielle (24's Elisha Cuthbert) teaches him to loosen up and cut loose, while also landing him in deep trouble when her porno past catches up to them.

First things first: No, Cuthbert does not get naked, except from the side in such a way that it could be a body double we're seeing. It makes sense that she doesn't, though -- her Danielle is trying to put the porn behind her, and as consolation, we get several other porn-related characters who do get gratuitously nude, so there you go. The R rating isn't just for that, however: In this movie about high school boys, the high school boys sound quite authentic, their speech liberally sprinkled with the two F-words (in case you have to ask, the second one is "fag"). There's also drug use, underage fornication (some of the sex scenes, if duplicated exactly in the real world, might qualify as statutory rape), and a gleeful disregard for academia, but if the kids are old enough to watch this movie unaccompanied, they've presumably already made concrete plans regarding higher education or lack thereof.

Skin city: Elisha Cuthbert is the title character, and Emile Hirsch the neighbor in The Girl Next Door.
Skin city: Elisha Cuthbert is the title character, and Emile Hirsch the neighbor in The Girl Next Door.

Details

Directed by Luke Greenfield. Screenplay by Stuart Blumberg and David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant and Paul Dano.

Rated R.

The movie begins cleverly, with a gag that analogizes porn cinematography to yearbook picture-taking, then uses the device of the yearbook to introduce many live-action snapshots of high school life, from the skaters with absurdly large scrape wounds to jocks trying hopelessly to sound hip by yelling "This prom is gonna be off the hook, do you feel me?" at pep rallies. Ringing truest of all is a running joke about a nerdy male Asian exchange student due to arrive in a few weeks, whose "video letters" have gained a cult following among those who laugh at them and call out "I wanna bang you!" whenever they're shown. It's hard to believe that the screenwriters of My Baby's Daddy and the director of The Animal -- a movie so mind-numbing that Sony publicists made up a fake critic to praise it -- could have any kind of astute observational humor to offer, but perhaps it's the R rating that liberates them.

Stuck in the middle of all the cliques and shticks is generic protagonist Kidman ("kid-man," get it?), a quiet honor student who's neither geek nor hunk. For him, good grades are just a way of passing the time -- when pressed for his most indelible memories of high school, nothing at all comes to mind. His best friends, Eli (Chris Marquette) and Klitz ("clits," get it? Anyway, he's played by Paul Dano), are AV-club geeks and obsessive porn fans, and are so convincing -- in a way that big-screen high schoolers usually aren't -- you'd swear these were newcomers to acting enlisted specifically to play themselves. All the more impressive, then, when one looks at their résumés and finds that Marquette has been acting on TV shows (notably Another World) since he was 8, and Dano already has an Independent Spirit award under his belt (for L.I.E.).

Kidman's longing for an excuse to take a few risks, and when Danielle shows up in the neighborhood, he gladly submits to her training him in the fine art of cutting class. Eventually, she starts to fall for him, but then he falls prey to one of the oldest pitfalls of the genre -- turning to his friends for love advice that proves extremely counterproductive and pisses the woman off, in this case by treating her like a porn fantasy rather than an actual person. (Note that even in "actual person" mode, the character of Danielle is still a stereotypical male fantasy, but whatever.) Distraught, she returns to the adult industry and her sleazy pimp/producer, Kelly (Timothy Olyphant, in the Joe Pantoliano role from Risky Business).

Let us now take a moment to praise Mr. Olyphant. You loved him in Go (if you were one of the few who saw it), but can't quite remember where you've seen him last, right? Thankless supporting roles in the likes of Rock Star and A Man Apart have made him one of those familiar faces, but in The Girl Next Door, he's a breakout scene-stealer, which isn't the easiest thing in the world to be when the camera's busy fetishizing Cuthbert. Hilariously flirting with a dumpy bank teller one minute, then threatening heinous violence the next, his Kelly is the character audiences will be talking about the most. When a Speedo-clad James Remar shows up as a rival porn mogul, it's enough to make you wish these two were the whole show (spin-off, anyone?).

The nudity and profanity may be the reason for the R rating, but Olyphant is what gives the movie a dangerous edge. Come for the hooters, stay for the jokes . . . but Olyphant's the man who'll linger in your memory when all the fluff has been forgotten.

 
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