The Girl Next Door is what you can call a real mess of a movie. It’s got a pretty strong talent list. Timothy Olyphant is especially terrific. Emile Hirsch is a strong presence. Both Paul Dano and Chris Marquette acquit themselves nicely. Admittedly, Elisha Cuthbert is in a fairly thankless role that is mainly about her being really attractive (and really, she does a fine job-she is just overshadowed).
The film had three writers-two whose biggest film was the first Van Wilder. However, the third went on to write The Kids Are All Right and get the coveted Oscar Nomination. Director Luke Greenfield had the Animal under his belt. Unlike the previous two films I wrote about, this a film that played in theaters and to be honest, is going to be more mixed.
There are things that really work in this film. Specifically moments and performances. And it has some interesting morality tales at play. At the same time, it has some major failings.
The Girl Next Door tells the story of Matthew (Emile Hirsch) who, along with his friends Klitz (Paul Dano) and Eli (Chris Marquette) are pretty much a non-presence in their school. Not for lack of trying, of course. These are kids who would like to be noticed by their peers…but are just not popular. In Matthew’s case, it is his focus on the future that has left him out of school. He is student council president. He is raising fund for bringing a kid from Cambodia to to be a student in their school. Everything he did was with the aim of impressing a future college, a future business, his parents. He’s more honor society and business school than cool kid. Sure, he fantasizes about skipping class, but he cannot help but ultimately back out.
Then one evening he notices Elisha Cuthbert’s Danielle moving in next door. He watches her undress from his bedroom window only to be caught. She takes him out for a night of crazy fun, and they seem to hit it off. Matt’s sex obsessed film geek pal Eli recognizes her and Matt discovers his dream girl is a porn star. And suddenly, his view of her is changed…Eli convinces him this means easy access to hot sex.
In a moment that actually works very well, Matt takes Danielle to a seedy hotel. She quickly realizes what is going on and turns up the sexuality, posing and displaying herself… all as Matthew grows less and less comfortable. When he knows that she totally understand why they are there? He starts to feel embarrassed and she loses her respect for this guy she thought saw her differently from others, as more than a toy. But he’s let her down.
He sees the error of course, she was kind, supportive and they were doing well, and he let something that just should not have mattered alter how he saw her-he had turned her into an object. Then there is the new wrinkle… her boyfriend/Porn King Kelly (Timothy Olyphant) shows up. And he’s charming and seductive. He comes across as a friendly guy who means no harm. But he slowly draws Matthew into some questionable choices that start to unravel all his hard work. Kelly becomes more threatening and leaves Matthew in a situation where he could lose everything.
So, Matthew finds himself teaming up with a rival purveyor of Porn (James Remar) to try and solve the problem. It does of course all work out in the end, Matthew gets the girl and a bright new future opens up for him. It’s all a happy ending.
As I said, the film is riddled with problems. First off, it mixes it’s messages. Matthew sees Danielle as deserving better than porn, as worthy of not being used and objectified. And I can get behind the idea of the message that people have an inherent worth that deserves better than much of what porn offers. And yet, Matthew has zero conflict with allowing two of her porn actresses friends have sex on film to get him out of trouble. The film also makes light of the background women in porn can often come from…one of the porn actresses suggests in a throwaway line about losing her virginity at age ten.
The Girl Next Door could have actually been a great surprise, given it’s cast and delivers a lot of strong moments throughout, but it’s turns to dependance on objectification keep. It also does not help that her character has competing personalities. One is unkind and cruel, the other sweet and sensitive. I know we are meant to like the sweet and sensitive side as the real Danielle…but it goes all over the place. This all a part of the film flaws. It’s terribly uneven. It tries to go from light farce to dark comedy. The film tries to have it both ways, portraying a culture of objectification in a critical light, all the while objectifying it’s lead actress. The culture of objectification is only bad for some. Only some are worth freeing from the chains of objectification.
The 55% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes tells us just how conflicted the critics were. It’s audience rating is much higher (71%). Ebert hates it. I can’t really argue against his reasons, I share them, though just not as strongly in some respects.
But I gotta say, Timothy Olyphant totally delivers as Kelly. He’s a terrific actor wo always manages to turn in a strong performance even in lesser films. And in another film? This coulda been something.