The Girl Next Door
2004
Exceptionally ambitious high schooler Matthew (Emile Hirsch) has aspirations for a career in politics when he falls in love with his gorgeous 19-year-old neighbor, Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert). But Matthew's bright future is jeopardized when he finds Danielle was once a porn star. As Danielle's past catches up with her, Matthew's love for her forces him to re-evaluate his goals in this romantic comedy co-starring Timothy Olyphant and Paul Dano.

Scott Hardie: “It sucked.”

In fairness I must mention that I enjoyed seeing this movie, though that had more to do with the circumstances (seeing it with an interesting new friend) than with the film itself, which is both more contrived and more manipulative than any film I've seen in a long time. It has a number of big laughs, and more warmth than most teen movies these days can muster, slick corporate products that they generally are. The actors are all capable, especially an overachieving Timothy Olyphant as the charming villain. For much of its running time, I was willing to forgive its contrivances and give it an above-median rating, but in its final act it just sank deeper and deeper under the weight of its own conceits and plot holes. (Spoilers lurk ahead in this review.)

Like most Ben Stiller comedies, which are similarly self-defeating, this movie sets up scene after scene in which the essentially innocent hero is embarrassed by cosmically bad luck. He is lured into a strip club? Why, there's his father's best friend at the bar! He is lured into a stranger's swimming pool at night? Why, it turns out to be owned by the school principal! At nearly every turn, this good kid is tricked into doing something bad despite himself, and inevitably another character shows up to catch him at it. After this happens a half-dozen times we wonder why the kid doesn't just lock himself in his room for good, since the universe obviously hates him. (One of my gripes about Ben Stiller embarrassment comedies, "Meet the Parents" being the gold standard, is that the hero too often causes his own embarrassment through duplicity or stupidity; thus we are incapable of feeling sorry for him. This film at least evades that trap by having the hero get away clean every time he intentionally breaks the rules, and only getting him in trouble whenever he breaks them against his will.)

Some of the film's contrivances are minor and can be forgiven, such as the encounter at the strip club, which leads into a funny moment between the hero and his witness. Others are more frustrating because they aren't the setup merely for a cute joke; the plot depends on them. Take the confrontation in the bank, after the villain has cleaned out the hero's account: I'm no expert in bank law, but it seems to me that the teller who neglected to ask for any identification, and just forked over someone else's $25,000 to a stranger, would be the one facing jail time for the mistake, not the hero for being dodgy about the villain's identity. When I saw this scene, I thought, "Well, no problem; she'll be fired and the bank is insured, so it will make good on the missing cash." But no, I'm watching a movie in which common sense has a lower priority than plot machinations, and it's a setup for the final act of the film. Also too contrived is the final showdown between the hero and villain in the hero's living room with his parents: We find ourselves questioning the glaring plot holes that this scene creates. How did Eli (the boy director) edit the porn footage into a finished form, complete with a titles sequence, before the hero even got home from filming it? How did the villain know that such a thing was even being made, and manage to steal it from Eli, who presumably would have been awake and editing it? How could the villain steal this videotape in an effort to blackmail the hero and yet not realize what it actually is? How could the school principal be lured (in a suit) in the wee hours of the morning after the prom by parents who had not even been told what the villain's visit to them was all about? Because the scene is total bullshit, that's why. This movie takes place in some kind of parallel universe where forces conspire to make the worst possible thing happen to the hero every time he enters a room, no matter how implausible such things may be.

Maybe it's pointless to criticize the movie for being unrealistic. I have read some negative reviews that complain that high school is nothing like this, but that's like attacking "Super Troopers" for its inaccurate portrayal of law enforcement. But there's unrealistic and then there's unbelieveable, a point at which a movie forces so many coincidences that it damages our ability to enjoy it, and this film reaches that point about two-thirds of the way through. The laughs get to be fewer and fewer as we sense the movie twisting beyond plausibility in order to put more screws to the hero. It is inauthentic and manipulative, and that it is probably better than most recent teen movies is a sad reflection of the state of our entertainment.

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