Maybe I'm overreacting.
Maybe "The Girl Next Door" is simply another formulaic teen romantic comedy with a high school setting, where the girl and boy get some laughs and share a few serious moments on the way to true love. Maybe the fact that it's a stunning former pornography star who moves in adjacent to this lucky senior is something I should be tolerantly admiring as a "what'll they think of next" variation on a familiar theme.
Maybe, but it doesn't feel that way.
Things that everyone notices, like the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, tend to be over-reactions to societal transformations that have already happened. But things that sneak in under the radar, deceptive events that not everyone pays attention to, can be unsettling signposts leading to unsavory change.
Yes, we've had films like Paul Brickman's "Risky Business," where Tom Cruise's teenager gets involved with Rebecca De Mornay's prostitute, but that was a much more sophisticated film with a noticeably adult sensibility.
What is disturbing and frankly distasteful about "The Girl Next Door" is how slick and shameless it is in its eagerness to blur boundaries, to squeeze as much transgressive material as it can into a nominally bland and innocent form, to serve up a benign, sanitized and exquisitely titillating portrait of the world of pornography in the cozy sheep's clothing of a teenage movie.
Yes, "The Girl Next Door" is rated R, but the intended audience is clearly 16-year-old boys adept at circumventing the ratings system and that percentage of the male moviegoing public that's stubbornly remained at that age mentally. The decision not to try for a softer rating was not an altruistic desire to protect youthful sensibilities but, producer Charles Gordon told the Hollywood Reporter, a shrewdly commercial choice: "If this movie was PG-13, the audience was going to smell a rat."
One of the fascinating things about "The Girl Next Door" is the way it is mainstreaming pornography not only to guys but to a female audience by its adroit casting of beautiful Elisha Cuthbert, best known as Kiefer Sutherland's in-trouble daughter on TV's "24," as Danielle, a young woman with a past.
Cuthbert has a sweet and appealing demeanor, an innocence that makes her look like your standard porn star the way Macaulay Culkin looks like a professional wrestler. Her persona allows a career in pornography to seem like nothing more than a kicky, kind of daring next step for veterans of "Girls Gone Wild" — a minimally risky way, less painful than tattooing, to make yourself a desirable date. Given how much "The Girl Next Door" has the unsettling aspect of a porn industry recruitment film, it's no wonder that two of the biggest players in the game, Vivid Entertainment and Wicked Pictures, are prominently thanked in the closing credits.
Casting also works in the film's favor with the selection of eminently likable Emile Hirsch to play young Matthew Kidman, the boy the girl lives next door to. Hirsch has an air of ordinary decency that serves as a potent antidote to the film's smarmier aspects. When director Luke Greenfield (who debuted with the Rob Schneider-starring "The Animal") says, "If we didn't get Emile, I probably wouldn't have made the movie," he is not just being hyperbolic.
In fact, it is how well Hirsch and Cuthbert work together, how likable a couple they turn out to be, that makes "The Girl Next Door" a particularly regrettable experience. Was it really necessary to turn these actors into a seductive poisoned chalice we're determined to drink from even though its aftereffects are pernicious? Is this the best use of this kind of chemistry Hollywood could come up with?
It's young Matthew that the film's trio of screenwriters (Stuart Blumberg and David T. Wagner & Brent Goldberg) introduce us to first. He's an earnest individual who dreams of attending Georgetown and embarking on a career in public service. He and best friends Eli (Chris Marquette) and Klitz (Paul Dano), whose name is the film's idea of a joke, are so out of things socially that when a yearbook questionnaire asks Matthew for his best high school memories, he finds he doesn't have any.
All this changes when Danielle, housesitting for an aunt visiting Africa with a church group, moves in next door. When Matthew catches his first glimpse of her, he is so stunned he walks right into the trash cans, which, given how she is photographed, is a perfectly appropriate response.
Using every idealizing visual technique it can think of, "The Girl Next Door" fills the screen with fantasy images of Danielle. The camera lingers adoringly over numerous shots of our heroine in underwear or skimpy attire. But, very much aware of the line it is treading, the film, though it plays the most careful peek-a-boo games with her body, never shows Danielle topless. For the more it panders to our prurient interest, the more "The Girl Next Door" understands that it must pretend it is doing nothing of the sort.
Hence the lack of female nudity despite an R rating, and hence a sequence where Danielle pays Matthew back for spying on her disrobing by making him run around the neighborhood naked. It would be a more charming scene if it didn't feel like a carefully calculated riposte included to rebut potential charges of sexist exploitation.
Not having seen the film's publicity, Matthew has no idea who Danielle is and takes it at face value when she tells him "I kinda quit my job" and evinces a desire to start over, maybe even go to college. For her part, she tells him he needs to have some fun in his life and embarks on a mission to make this straight arrow do some wild and crazy things.
Though Matthew's eventual discovery of what job Danielle quit leads to some truly dreadful scenes, it also opens the door for "Girl Next Door's" most entertaining character, Kelly, Danielle's former porn producer, played with wonderful comic zest by Timothy Olyphant.
The more "The Girl Next Door" runs on and on, adding extraneous characters and situations one on top of another, the clearer it becomes that the filmmakers had no real idea of how to expand their hot idea into a coherent film. Finally, the most memorable thing about it, casting smarts aside, is the brazenness with which it demands to be — and in general has been — accepted as just another business-as-usual teen product.
But as the man said, maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe.
'The Girl Next Door'
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content, language and some drug-alcohol use
Times guidelines: Disturbing mainstreaming of pornography for young people
James Remar...Hugo Posh
Regency Enterprises presents a New Regency production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director Luke Greenfield. Producers Charles Gordon, Harry Gittes, Marc Sternberg. Executive producers Arnon Milchan, Guy Reidel. Screenplay Stuart Blumberg and David T. Wagner & Brent Goldberg. Cinematographer Jamie Anderson. Editor Mark Livolsi. Costumes Marilyn Vance. Music Paul Haslinger. Production design Stephen Lineweaver. Art director Jason Weil. Set decorator Traci Kirshbaum. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times