Featuring an uncool high school boy dating a porn star, The Girl Next Door’s target audience is a year or two too young to buy tickets to this R-rated show. I imagine there will be lots of theater-sneaking at the multiplexes this weekend, with box-office sales of Ella Enchanted artificially inflated.
Ironically, the film could have had huge appeal for girls, too. But after empowering its heroine, it demeans her, which ultimately kills the fun.
Porn Stars, Nerds, and Pimps
R for sex, language, drugs
Emile Hirsch, who had a small but key role in The Emperor’s Club makes a breakthrough in The Girl Next Door. Looking like a young Leonardo Di Caprio, he plays Matt, a high school senior who has apparently never seen a woman before. When the girl next door (Elisha Cuthbert) undresses by her open window, hormones disable Matt’s brain and activate his salivary gland.
She sees him, and she comes over to introduce herself and exact a little harmless revenge. Using her feminine assets, she takes him out in her convertible, makes him strip in front of her headlights and then ditches him. There is a hint of chemistry between them, but for now, we put them aside while Matt’s friends are introduced.
Matt’s clique are the nerds of the school. They’re interesting enough to not be total pariahs, but far from cool enough to be part of the in-crowd. Paul Dano is Klitz, whose sole talent is looking a bit like John Lennon. Chris Marquette is Eli, an aspiring filmmaker. He’s also a connoisseur of fine pornography, and he recognizes Matt’s girl-next-door from some of his x-rated tapes.
It might be worth summarizing the plot if there were one. Instead there are too many plots and subplots, but some of the key events revolve around these facts:
- The nerds are entrusted with $10,000 of school property.
- Dee (Cuthbert) has an opportunistic pimp named Kelly (Timothy Olyphant).
- The nerds think the pimp can make them cool.
- Pornography is lucrative.
- Did I mention that Eli is an aspiring filmmaker?
There is some entertainment value in The Girl Next Door. Call it Risky Business for the current generation. All of the young stars are charismatic enough to hold the screen. It’s also funny. My audience had some good laughs, and they even applauded.
But there were also dry spells where I was tempted to leave. Endless twists and changes in tone don’t show any direction toward a resolution; for all you know, it might never end.
Teen sex comedies are nothing new, and The Girl Next Door is nothing special. If it sets itself apart, it’s only that it’s raunchier and sleazier than most of its peers. You’ll need a shower afterwards if you go.
Too Shallow for Irony
But the worst thing about the movie is its casual attitude toward sexual abuse. At first, Dee’s being a porn star is a laughing matter. She’s a consenting adult, and her line of work is the setting for several good-natured sex-comedy jokes. But later, we realize that her pimp is violent and controlling. Hardly a laughing matter, and it makes her consent coerced.
The movie tries to remain a comedy. It tries to make the pimp into a comic villain who introduces conflict and drives the plot. Olyphant does his part. He steals the show, playing a sort of black-sheep older cousin. He’s the kind of guy who lets you taste your first beer, who Tom Waits might say “gives you a rubber on prom night.” But the plot requires him to do some horrible things, which works against the charisma that Olyphant builds up.
The movie wants to have it both ways. It wants Dee’s sex-for-money to be a manifestation of girl power (thus the potential attraction for a teenage girl demographic). But it also wants her to be a victim of a violent and controlling male. This movie isn’t deep enough to tackle the irony of that contradiction. Instead it’s just callous and glib. Instead of being empowering, it’s demeaning.
Girl Power Unplugged
Alison Pollet and Page Hurwitz wrote an interesting article called Strip Till You Drop, on stripper chic among 12- and 13-year old girls. These teens and pre-teens wear tee-shirts reading “Porn Star” and thong underwear with “Pay up, sucker!” or a padlock printed on the front. The article proposes that it’s a way for girls to feel empowered. “You know you want me, but you can’t have me” is the message. It’s a little twisted, but it carries a certain logic.
The Girl Next Door might have tapped into that vein. It might have attracted girls, had Dee been allowed to be a strong character who wrapped the boy next door around her finger. But by making Dee a victim of her pimp, in need of rescuing by the boy next door, it threw away any empowering (if disturbing) message for girls. Ultimately, it’s just another movie for horny male teenagers to sneak into.
Maybe I’ll go see Ella Enchanted instead.