In the wake of 80’s week, I found myself contemplating the state of the modern teen comedy. After the end of John Hughes’ stellar track record of teen-themed films, we haven’t had much to take their place. Sure, we had Can’t Hardly Wait and American Pie, Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You, but it feels like the genre is still strangely empty. And then I remembered 2004’s The Girl Next Door. It’s not your conventional high school movie — it’s filled with gratuitous nudity, copious swearing, drug use, and all kinds of other fun stuff. It’s one of those films that I feel oddly guilty about liking… no. Fuck that. I love this flick. I can’t help myself.
The Girl Next Door is a simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story, with a couple of twists thrown in. Taking place during the final days of high school, Matthew (Emile Hirsch) is one of those lesser-known smart kids who despite being Senior Council President of his class, sort of fades into the woodwork of his school. His only real friends are the gangly, awkward Klitz (Paul Dano) and the manic, sex-obsessed Eli (Chris Marquette). Together, they envy the cool kids and watch life pass them by until the day that, through a voyeuristic mishap, Matthew meets his new neighbor, the beautiful Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert). Despite being miles apart in many ways, the two strike up a friendship that begins to blossom into a relationship.
Until, of course, Matthew discovers that she’s a former porn star. That’s about when boy loses girl, and then tries to get her back. Standing in his way are his dickhead high school classmates, a Cambodian exchange student, his quest for a scholarship to Georgetown, and last but definitely not least, the sleazy porn producer/director Kelly (played marvelously by Timothy Olyphant).
On the surface, there’s no reason these ingredients should add up to a good movie. The director, Luke Greenfield, directed the Rob Schneider abomination The Animal. Elisha Cuthbert, under normal circumstances, couldn’t act her way out of a wet bag. The story is rife with cliches, and perhaps worse, it fails to tackle any of the difficult choices or themes that are so obvious given the subject matter (Matthew is never bothered by Danielle’s sexual history and it doesn’t touch on any of the harsh realities of the adult film industry). And yet, it works.
That success is in large part due to Stuart Blumberg’s breezy, banter-filled and heartfelt screenplay. Blumberg, who also co-wrote this year’s excellent The Kids Are All Right and is currently working on adapting Jonathan Lethem’s outstanding novel Motherless Brooklyn, injects the film with just the right balance of raunchy sex humor and sweetly honest charm. It’s a weird combination that, with a few flashes of brilliance, works in spite of itself. Cuthbert manages to not be the irritating moron she was on the awful “24,” and the film is bolstered by a surprisingly excellent cast — prior to this, Hirsch and Dano were virtual unknowns, and have since gone on to become powerful actors in their own right (Dano has since dazzled viewers with There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine and Hirsch shined in Into The Wild and Milk). Olyphant is simply Olyphant. The man is fucking awesome in whatever he does, whether it’s the sheriff of “Deadwood” or a porn director, and his portrayal of Kelly is a mix of menacing, hilarious and engaging. With his razor-pointed sideburns, gelled hair and too-tight pants, he’s the kind of scuzzily sexy that you’ll only find in movies, and he ruthlessly steals every scene he’s in.
It is, unfortunately, difficult to get past the film’s brutally long list of cliches. Cuthbert is yet another manifestation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, albeit one with a more checkered past than usual. The whole “two different people tasked with helping each other find themselves” theme — barf. It’s full of Meaningful Musical Montages With Appropriately Time Crescendoes. The attraction between the two leads is sort of inexplicable, even though their chemistry is actually quite good. The high school stereotypes are broad and dumb. The supporting cast, particularly Eli and Klitz, are given almost no depth at all. And the finale, involving a harebrained blackmail scheme and wacky prom hijinks, wraps itself up a little too neatly.
Yet it’s engaging and affecting enough to (mostly) navigate through those tired tropes. It’s bolstered by its savvy writing, clever dialogue and some genuinely hilarious moments. It’s also helped by an outstanding and eclectic soundtrack, featuring acts like Monster Magnet, Satchel, Filter, Groove Armada, Elliott Smith, Echo and the Bunnymen and even Lynyrd Skynyrd (though it does suffer from an excess of David Grey — but then, any David Grey is too much David Grey). The Girl Next Door is hardly one of the all time great teen romantic comedies, although to be honest, that’s hardly an ouevre that I’m fit to judge. Yet despite its flaws, it still manages to be a bawdy, entertaining and yes, sweet coming of age flick. With lots of booze, drugs and nudity, of course.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.