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Published: Friday, 4/9/2004

Movie review: The Girl Next Door ***

The Girl Next Door, the refreshing new sex comedy starring Elisha Cuthbert and Emile Hirsch, got me to thinking: One of the most mystifying things you can tell someone who sees movies for a living is how oversexed the movies are getting. Listening to people who rarely go to the movies talk about the explosion of sex in movies, you would think that your average Friday night at the multiplex was indistinguishable from the seediest grind house in Times Square at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday, circa 1972.

One woman recently told me she loved Big Fish because it had no overt sexuality, "not like most of what you get at the theater these days." The idea that your movie houses are full of perversity and naked bodies engaging in lurid acts, unprintable in most newspapers, is so unquestioned and pervasive it seems futile to deliver the following news flash:

Movie sex is overrated. Or rather, wildly overstated.

Movies play the ratings game, of course. Violence trumps sex on most days; sex means an automatic R, and most movies are contractually obligated to land a PG-13. So most PG-13 movies get their rating for violence; or if it's science fiction, for the more apologetic "sci-fi action violence." And most R-rated movies get their rating for violence and explicit language and something the Motion Picture Association of America likes to call "sensuality." This is an industry catch-all that covers everything from a large bra budget, to excess thongs, to possibly a bare chest or two. But even that much, take my word, is the exception and not the rule.

Which maybe explains why I kinda sorta found The Girl Next Door so refreshing. It earns its R. A new teen cold shower with a deceptively innocuous title, it's not surprising because it's anything extraordinary or original. Quite the contrary (we'll get to that). Instead it's a teen sex comedy without the gooey warmth and sentimentality of an American Pie movie, unapologetically loaded with nudity, debauchery, pornography - it's the teen sex comedy every teenaged connoisseur of scrambled cable TV signals imagines hidden behind those wavy lines. It has the courage of its very low convictions.

It also has high convictions, pretentiously high convictions, and if they nudge into the way of the low, well .●.●. that ambition is ultimately what makes The Girl Next Door the most entertaining teen sex comedy in quite a while. Indeed, the impulse is to say it's the best teen sex comedy since Risky Business, and not because it actually is, but because it's a proudly shameless scavenging of everything that made that 1983 Tom Cruise breakthrough special. Don't think rip-off. Think karaoke singer who butchers a great old song, but somehow manages to make it his own.

Fans of Risky Business will consider this highway robbery, but they should stick with it: In the Cruise role we have Hirsch (The Emperor's Club), playing the overachieving, upper middle class, suburban Matthew, president of the student council and future politician, headed for Georgetown on a raft of scholarships and extracurricular do-gooderism. In the place of that dreamy, floating electronic Tangerine Dream soundtrack from Risky Business (emulated in years since by American Beauty), we have an effectively eclectic blend of N.E.R.D., David Bowie, Harry Nilsson, and David Gray.

And something synth-heavy that sounds a lot like Tangerine Dream. In place of Rebecca De Mornay's prostitute, we get va-va-voom-y ice princess Cuthbert (Fox's 24), and she's a porn star trying to make a new home, and career path, in the suburbs, next door to Matthew. He spots her undressing one night and she spots him spotting her and forces him to run naked through the neighborhood, and, well, it's not exactly Meet Cute.

The rest is a remarkable imitation: Danielle (Cuthbert) must teach Matthew how to have a good time. Matthew reciprocates by promising to buy Danielle out of her old life. "I know you're better than this," he says, and the film at least shows the brains to acknowledge how condescending naive people can be.

In the Joe Pantoliano-Guido the Killer Pimp role, enter the terrific Timothy Olyphant (Go), walking a compelling line between sinister and charming as Danielle's former producer. He's not at all happy with Matthew's sudden interest in fallen women trying to make a new start, and Olyphant's vague menace, when it's introduced midway through, puts the film on more interesting paths. You feel it get better, and find a second wind. But The Girl Next Door doesn't have the style or weight of a Risky Business. It's more reminiscent of the sunny flatness of a John Hughes movie, without a care for the PG confines of those '80s teen dreams.

It also won't do for Hirsch what it did for Cruise. Like the film itself, he has an amiable, earnest quality, but he can't pull off Cruise's talent for looking simultaneously guilty and turned on. Cuthbert never succumbs to the breathy Marilyn Monroe blank the character is written as; but when Matthew tells Danielle he knows who she is, it's a surprise, because the movie doesn't seem to know who she is. Which is how the average teen sex comedy tends to behave.

Your theater is full of princess movies at the moment. Those are for the girls. The guys get these fantasies, but they have to sneak into them, or catch them on video, and circulate the tape or DVD. The best of these movies tend to be somewhat darker, creepier; maybe because there's a stark black hole where the morality should be. Cruise started a brothel. Hirsch is dragged into porn. The only concern is how it affects their college chances, and their career after that. Cruise's pearly great white smile promised what the rest of the 1980s delivered: corporate raiding, conspicuous consumption without worry. The Girl Next Door is no less a product of its time, the age of The Apprentice: Free enterprise, impressing the boss, be it the prince of the porn industry or king of the real estate market, means never having to say to your parents you're sorry.



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