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The Girl Next Door   B+

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Luke Greenfield
Writers: Stuart Blumberg, Brent Goldberg, David Wagner
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Elisha Cuthbert, Timothy Olyphant, James Remar, Chris Marquette, Paul Dano, Sung Hi Lee, Amanda Swisten.

Review by Rob Vaux
"Let's deflower the kid."
--Polexia Aphrodisia (Anna Paquin), Almost Famous

To everyone who has seen the commercials for The Girl Next Door, purge them from your mind immediately. Fox is perpetrating a colossal fraud upon the American public: an insipid and ill-conceived ad campaign positing this film as some kind of brainless sex romp. It's nothing of the sort. It's sharp and funny and good-natured and sweet. It presents its coming of age story with grace and sophistication: the best take on the subject since American Pie. And if it wears its influences a little too blatantly on its sleeve, at least they're influences well worth having. I'm not sure what movie the posters want us to see, but it sure as hell isn't The Girl Next Door.

Okay, yes, the title character is a porn star. And yes, she takes her wet-behind-the-ears neighbor on a roller-coaster fantasy he'll never forget. There are wacky false assumptions, strip-downs by windowsills, and a dildo-shaped award for a film called Chitty Chitty Gang Bang. But saying The Girl Next Door is about all of that is like saying Risky Business is about Tom Cruise dancing around in his underwear. It delivers the more risqué material with a knowing wink, planting its tongue firmly in its cheek while guiding our perceptions to its real subject. We laugh less at the titillation than at the characters' fumbling responses to it... and director Luke Greenfield makes sure we enjoy the results.

The catalyst for it all is Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert), a burgeoning X-rated starlet who moves into her aunt's house in an effort to break away from her distasteful career. We see her through the eyes of her new neighbor Matthew (Emile Hirsch), as confused and screwed up as every 18-year-old since the dawn of time. Though bound for Georgetown and president of his class, he feels disconnected from the world, cloistered and unable to take any risks. Danielle views him as a sort of pet project, encouraging him to come out of his shell, while he in turn views her without the stigma of her former status and helps her remember her better side when her old associates come calling.

It's drippy stuff, to be sure, but in Greenfield's hands it has deft charm. The Risky Business model is readily apparent -- both in tone and mood -- which some may find off-putting. Certainly, it's clear where The Girl Next Door draws its inspiration, and at times you can feel the earlier film tugging at our sleeves. Greenfield, however, apes more than just the surface details: he recaptures the intelligence as well, and the irresistible way in which Business endeared itself to us. He never pushes the sentiment too hard, instead allowing it to develop quietly alongside the humor, and he respects his audience enough not to bang us over the head with emotion. The characters are instantly appealing, particularly Hirsch, who brings a winning package of plausibility to Matthew. And there are a few genuine surprises along the way, which keep The Girl Next Door from bogging down in familiarity.

As for the sexuality, it's played largely for laughs... though they're always gentle and good-hearted. The film acknowledges the seamier side of pornography without reducing its comic potential -- most obviously in Matthew's ultimate foil, a sleazebag producer (Timothy Olyphant) with designs on Danielle. He's at once funny and intimidating, dragging Matthew out of class by the scruff of his neck while snarling "Make good choices!" at his thunderstruck schoolmates. The balance he strikes is typical of the film's humor. The racier stuff is handled equally delicately, with the understanding of adulthood rather than the drooling idiocy of teendom. Indeed, that's sort of the point. Like American Pie, many of the characters here think that sex is the end all and the be all; and like American Pie, the film itself laughs at their misconceptions. It knows better than they do, and though it's not afraid to make them play the fool, it does so with neither smugness nor cruelty. That's its secret weapon: easily spotted, though surprisingly difficult to achieve. Harder still when the promotional campaign is selling it as disposable trash. Look past the surface and you'll see something more here: if not entirely original, then smart, enjoyable, and in its own way, quite special. In that sense (if no other) the advertisements are working. Without them, The Girl Next Door wouldn't be such a wonderful surprise.

Review published 04.02.2004.

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