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Girl Trouble

The Girl Next Door is a Frankenstein sex comedy.

I'd hoped to write about The Passion of the Christ this week but, as with its theatrical release, the film's appearance on video is shrouded in anticipation-enhancing secrecy. Its distributor, Fox--who else?--sent out only a very small number of specially marked review copies, and remarkably enough Home Movies did not make the list. Fox also took the highly unusual step of requiring reviewers to return the DVDs after 5 days. (Usually we get to keep them, which is why I now have the four-disc set of Alf: Season One serving as coasters in my living room.) What surprises, exactly, are they trying to protect? Does Jesus not rise at the end of the DVD? No, this coyness is just more evidence that in the long run The Passion of the Christ will have a more lasting impact on the art of marketing than on that of filmmaking.

For now, I will concern myself with passion of another kind altogether, specifically that of dweeby teenage boys for nubile hotties way out of their league. This cinematic evergreen is the subject most recently of The Girl Next Door, just released on video and DVD--also, incidentally, by Fox, which clearly doesn't want to put too many of its eggs in the religious martyrdom basket. The storyline is by design familiar: Matt (Emile Hirsch) is a high-school overachiever and romantic non-achiever who watches despondently as the pretty girls flock to his more athletic classmates. Unexpectedly (for Matt, but not for anyone who has ever seen a movie), who should move in next door but the beautiful and impossibly narrow-waisted Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert)? She immediately proceeds to undress in a conveniently uncurtained bedroom directly across from Matt's hungry, guilty eyes. She catches him watching her (of course) and enacts a punishment that is equal parts sexual humiliation and sexual titillation (ditto). In no time the two are snuggle bunnies, making out at a pool party in front of a pride of befuddled jocks.

It is at this point that the movie offers its signature twist: Danielle, Matt is informed by a porn-crazed buddy, is an adult film star. (I can hear your jaws drop from here.) Matt quickly passes through the four stages of adolescent sexual grief:

1.) sullenness (he avoids her);
2.) arousal (he treats her like a tramp and takes her to a cheap motel);
3.) groveling (to make up for #2);
4.) acceptance (who really cares what she's done? She's the only hot girl who's ever remembered his name).

The plot thickens once again, however, with the arrival of Guido the killer pim--no, my mistake, it's actually Kelly the porn producer (Timothy Olyphant). Kelly wants Danielle back--not in his arms, but in front of his camera lens. Matt earnestly insists that she's "better than this." Will Danielle give up the life? Will Kelly prove to be Matt's mentor or his nemesis? Will they all solve an acute financial crisis by means of the skin trade? These and other pressing questions are resolved by the final reel.

The movie has its strengths. The soundtrack is a superior mix of old and new that makes particularly nice use of the Bowie-Queen standard "Under Pressure." Hirsch is likable enough, though with his looks he might be better suited to playing callow rich kids than lovable nerds. Cuthbert's baby-faced perversion again serves her well, as it did in Old School (as the underage girl Luke Wilson sleeps with) and Love, Actually (as the "American Goddess" encountered in a bar). And Chris Marquette and Paul Dano are more than adequate as the other two legs of Matt's geek "tripod." But best by far is Olyphant. Having watched him in a handful of movies (the terrifically underrated Go stands out) and a dozen-odd episodes of "Deadwood," I'm still not sure whether he can really act. What's clear, though, is that he has an extraordinary physical charisma, all sinew and sinuousness. His predatory eyes and feral smile (and, in this film, Ted Nugent wardrobe) are a much-needed tonic in an age when so many young actors bear a greater resemblance to Sean Young than to Sean Connery.

The Girl Next Door has all the ingredients, in other words, for a well above-average teen sex romp. Its problem is that it can't quite decide whether it wants to be edgy or endearing, and so manages to be neither. Press materials, as well as impressionable reviewers, described the movie as a cross between Risky Business and American Pie. The similarities to Risky Business are obvious--it's basically the same story, substituting pornography for prostitution and Georgetown for Princeton. (It even repeats, one hopes self-consciously, the crucial line, "What are we going to do about this?") But Risky Business has a subversive, or perhaps merely cynical, heart. Joel never tries to rescue Lana from her life as a call girl (he just briefly supplants her pimp), and she never suggests she wants rescuing. The two use each other for sex and for profit, with love never entering into the equation. "It was great the way her mind worked," Joel notes approvingly. "No guilt, no doubts, no fear. ... Just the shameless pursuit of immediate material gratification." If Danielle is, in Matt's mind, "better than this," Lana is, in Joel's, simply better at this. She's a counter-counter-intuitive figure: a hooker with a heart of gold-digging.

American Pie, by contrast, for all its web voyeurship and pastry abuse, is a conventional, even conservative movie. Yes, the boys are all obsessed with having sex (this is called "documentary realism"), but they're also looking for love. When they finally lose their respective virginities, it is in every case with someone for whom they already care deeply (Oz, Kevin) or will come to (Jim, Finch). The lesson on the girls' side is even starker. Jessica, the one girl we know from the start to be sexually experienced, is also the one girl who has no visible romantic opportunities in the movie (or its sequels). Like Stiffler, who's presumably not a virgin either, she winds up alone on prom night. Get it, kids?

In trying to stitch together the traditional morality of American Pie and the dark storyline of Risky Business, The Girl Next Door winds up creating a Frankenstein sex comedy of mismatched messages and narrative impulses. Danielle is ashamed of her porn work, as is Matt. When she contemplates a return to the biz, explaining to him, "This is what I am," she doesn't mean it as a compliment. Yet even as we're supposed to worry that Danielle might be drawn back into this moral cesspool, we're also supposed to find it funny, even charming, moments later when a would-be porn star with a girlish grin and inflated breasts asks the geeks to give her a "throw" to see how good she would be on camera. It's enough to give a viewer moral whiplash. Is the adult film industry an ugly enterprise that exploits unhappy women? Or a sexy and delightful place to work?

The Girl Next Door never quite makes up its mind, and as a result ultimately succeeds neither as sex farce nor as teen romance. Among other consequences, its category confusion results in Danielle being largely absent from the last third of the movie. Though she asks two pretty porn colleagues to help Matt out of a bind with a little skin work--evidently they are not "better than this"--she plays no real part in the ensuing hijinks, out of respect for her newfound Good Girl status. The film's climax (no snickering) thus revolves mostly around Matt, his dork buddies, two happy-go-lucky porn stars, and Kelly. Which is a rather disappointing way to end a movie whose first hour is about finding true love and which is, after all, titled after Danielle.

The Home Movies List:
Unrepentent Bad Girls

Rebecca De Mornay, Risky Business. See above. Would have been a star-making performance if her looks were a little less unconventional. Instead we got him.

Sharon Stone, Basic Instinct. Verhoeven and Eszterhaus's sex fantasies look even worse after the horrors of Jade and Showgirls, and Stone's performance will forever be overshadowed by The Shot. Which is a shame, because she was much better than her uncrossed legs.

Faye Dunaway, Network. Icy hot as a Ben Gay rub, Dunaway reinvented the female sexual predator in the mid-70s. (See also The Three/Four Musketeers.) No wonder the country was nervous about feminism.

Christina Ricci, The Opposite of Sex. Her best role so far, a dark, witty treasure from before the Body Anxiety Industry scoured off her baby fat.

Catherine Zeta Jones, Chicago. She's never looked worse or been better. Who would have imagined she had this much Ethel Merman in her?