The American male hypocrisy toward sexually active women in general -- and porn in particular -- is at the center of the new comedy "The Girl Next Door." Unfortunately, instead of being the movie's target, it's the subtext.
The hero is 18-year-old Matthew (Emile Hirsch), the sort of straight-A good kid looked on as a grind by everyone else. He's conscious of the fun he's missing but too concerned about his future (that is, college) to cut loose. Enter a complication in the person of Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert), the "older" (probably 20) woman who moves in next door. Not only do the two of them strike up a romantically tinged friendship, but Danielle turns out to be a porn actress who's just left the business.
The film's production notes say that the movie "could easily have been turned into a raucous teen comedy." We should be so lucky. No teen comedy of the last few years has been as raucous as "American Pie" (the original -- accept no sequels) and almost no recent American movie has been as sexually straightforward. The director of "The Girl Next Door," Luke Greenfield, and the writers, Stuart Blumberg, David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg, have aimed for something more -- what would they call it? -- mature, maybe? And they've lost the friskiness and wildness and charm the movie might have had.
"The Girl Next Door" has the hard sheen and vaguely repellent tone of "Risky Business." In place of Joe Pantoliano's pimp, we have Timothy Olyphant as Danielle's former producer (read: pimp), who turns up to lure her back to the business and, predictably, makes Matthew's life a living hell, threatening to screw up all his tidy plans for college.
But "The Girl Next Door" doesn't exactly replicate the Reagan-era message of "Risky Business," in which Tom Cruise found that pimping was the surefire way to the top. When Matthew and his buddies have to come up with a scheme to get out of the fix he finds himself in, he's merely saving his own ass, not bribing his way into the Ivy League. The triumph of that scheme should make "The Girl Next Door" feel like an adolescent sexual fairy tale. But the movie's knowing, smirky tone prevents it from taking comic flight. And this "realistic" approach takes any potential irony out of the triumph of Matthew's scheme. Given the reality of contemporary America, where the government, the religious right and "concerned" parents are keeping potentially lifesaving sexual information out of the hands of teenagers, the ending seems like something made by people living in a cave.
The movie would feel worse than it is if it weren't for Elisha Cuthbert. As Kim on "24" Cuthbert has consistently acquitted herself with as much dignity as she can muster considering the ludicrousness of the perils-of-Pauline situations the writers keep devising for her. As Danielle, she's very sweet, and she manages vulnerability without going icky. The movie's poster, showing Cuthbert in a red halter top and skintight jeans, signifies that she's the focus of the movie's sexual fantasies. She's also the center of its confused sexual attitudes.
The writers deserve credit for coming up with a porn actress who isn't a bimbo or an addict and wasn't abused as a child. But they can't loosen up enough to escape the notion that confusion and directionlessness is what drove Danielle into porn -- in other words, it's not something that "nice" girls do. In the movie's key moment, Matthew tries to talk Danielle out of returning to the business by telling her, "I know who you are and you are so much better than this." Maybe that line is acceptable as a declaration from a lovestruck 18-year-old. But what does it mean? That the rest of the girls who work in porn are sluts who deserve what they get? (Would there ever conceivably be a movie where that line was delivered to a young woman being eaten up in an entry-level job in, say, investment banking?)
Instead of being about Matthew's coming to the mature conclusion that Danielle could have worked in porn and still be capable of love, "The Girl Next Door" becomes an adolescent "redeem a slut" fantasy. It reinforces ancient ideas about what good girls will and won't do. The question the movie doesn't ask is this: Did Matthew think Danielle -- or any of those other girls -- were "so much better than this" when he was jerking off to them?