Frisky Business

The Girl Next Door apes the teen-sex romps of yore.

Porn stars and the geeks who love them

You want to give points to Luke Greenfield, the director * of The Girl Next Door (20th Century Fox), for making a teen-sex comedy in the spirit of Paul Brickman’s Risky Business (1983)—so steeped in adolescent anxieties (both sexual and financial) that it warps and becomes hallucinatory. Greenfield cribs very lyrically. The movie opens with its wonky, 18-year-old hero, Matthew Kidman (Emile Hirsch), still more kid than man: He dreams of all the other seniors’ exotic yearbook inscriptions, and it hits him that he hasn’t really lived. One of the less affluent residents of Westport, Conn., Matthew covets a scholarship to Georgetown and a career in politics. His ambition has kept him inhumanly straight, but he fantasizes, as his high-school career draws to a close, about breaking a few rules. On cue, as if from the depths of his unconscious, a curvy, creamy blonde shows up in the house next door, where Matthew spies her slipping off her blouse and wriggling out of her tight jeans. But as he gazes on her through the window, she suddenly gazes back. Oops!

The girl, Danielle, is played by Elisha Cuthbert, this year struggling with some staggeringly idiotic plot turns and an unflattering career-woman bob (with gruesome bangs) on television’s 24. Better turned-out here as the sometime star of porn movies, Cuthbert still seems a bit of a blank, but at least her vapid readings don’t interfere with whatever we want to project on her. It’s unfortunate, though, that the trigger for Matthew’s journey from kid to man is his realization that whatever we want to project on her is wrong: There is more there, allegedly, than large, firm breasts, a tidy bottom, and lips that, to quote Morris Day in Purple Rain, “would make a lollipop too happy.” There is a girl who is pure of heart and worth risking everything for. We know this because Matthew says so, in one of those climactic speeches that starts out rockily but brings the audience to its feet and puts a shine in blondie’s eyes.

The ineffectual adolescent male goaded by the sexy woman to surpass himself and save her: The plot of The Girl Next Door is maddeningly stale and retro. And the movie’s geography is a puzzler: Greenfield has praised his production designer, Stephen Lineweaver, for creating a convincing Westport within Greater Los Angeles, but he seems to forget where he is and has his characters regularly drive back and forth from Las Vegas. But the film is seamlessly made, its mood balanced dreamily between sexy-funny and sexy-scary. Greenfield serves up Matthew’s fantasies without any preamble so that you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s in his head: Sometimes what he imagines is wilder and raunchier, but sometimes the reality is darker than his dreams. Emile Hirsch has the perfect stricken alertness, and Greenfield has a marvelous joker up his sleeve in Timothy Olyphant as Kelly, Danielle’s quasi-pimp.

I don’t know what to make of Olyphant on HBO’s bracing Western Deadwood. Watching the first episode, I said to my wife, “He’s like Bill Paxton’s little brother,” and she said, “You mean that isn’t Bill Paxton?” Paxton is a good model, though, especially the Paxton of Near Dark (1987) and the Arkansas black comedy Pass the Ammo (1988), and Olyphant has that same kind of spaced-out volatility. Olyphant’s Kelly is a brilliant synthesis of poses: the chummy big brother helping the backward sibling to lose his virginity, the insinuating con man, the all-embracing surfer dude, the sexual predator, the creature from the porn lagoon. He moves back and forth among his personae so rapidly and with such immersion in each that it’s obvious he doesn’t know what he is—except whatever he needs to be at any given moment. He’s the perfect dragon for a coming-of-age teen-sex comedy: one with too many heads to lop off, one who keeps you boogeying. 

Correction, April 14, 2004: An earlier version of this piece referred to Luke Greenfield as the writer and director of The Girl Next Door. He was only the director. (Return to the corrected sentence.)