'Girl Next Door' weighed down by teen genre cliches

by John Kim | 4/12/04 5:00am

I'm not the overly nostalgic type, but teen comedies really were better back in the day. The most recent of these movies reek of commercialization, and while many teen movies of the'80s also suffered from superficiality, there was nonetheless an earnestness contained within that is missing in today's efforts.

"The Girl Next Door" tries to recreate the sincerity that marked the films of that earlier decade, but while it is far better than "She's All That," it is also nowhere near the level of "Say Anything."

"Girl" has its moments, but too often, they are overshadowed by long patches of outright tedium.

Perhaps I am overly jaded. With teen comedies, one can expect three things -- vulgarity, cheap laughs and romance -- and it's possible that the vulgarity and the cheap laughs just don't appeal to me anymore. This means, though, that the movie had damn well better be romantic, and unfortunately, "Girl" is only half-successful in this regard.

In the film, Matthew (Emile Hirsch) is a Georgetown-bound high school senior who has spent the last four years just "playing it safe." Cue the arrival of Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert), the titular girl next door, a stunning blonde bombshell who inexplicably takes a shine to naive Matthew and eventually falls in love with him, utterly disrupting his world.

Of course, Danielle is also a former porn star, and when Matthew discovers this, he acts immaturely and pushes her away. Yet when faced with the prospect of losing her altogether, as outside influences begin to pull her back into the industry, he realizes that she is in fact the best thing that has ever happened to him.

Convinced that her fate is inevitable, Danielle says to Matthew at one point, "This is who I am." Matthew can only respond, "I know who you really are, and you're better than this."

I can understand why some would find this plot disturbing, especially since there are undertones of pedophilia that are dismissed like nothing. However, the movie is at heart a fairy tale, and complaining about such matters almost seems like nitpicking. The truth is, "Girl" has more blatant flaws.

Elisha Cuthbert is actually not terrible as Danielle. To put it bluntly, she is sex on legs, and while she may not be an amazing actress, she has a definite presence on-screen.

Yet it's sad that Cuthbert manages to outshine the rest of the cast simply by being acceptable. Emile Hirsch has the emotional range of a toenail clipping and is about as engaging as a John Kerry speech, while Christopher Marquette, as annoying sidekick Eli, grates only two minutes into the movie. Indeed, Hirsch and Marquette somehow made me yearn for the nuances of Jason Biggs and Seann William Scott.

Then, there is Timothy Olyphant who, as evil porn producer Kelly, overacts like an actual porn star, hits like a girl in his big "violent scene," and is made up to look like Ryan Seacrest, except cheesier. Kudos, Tim. You may have just delivered the worst performance of the year.

The film also suffers because it relies on its characters doing stupid things for no reason other than to advance the story. Suspension of disbelief is fine to an extent, but "Girl" too often tests our willingness to "just go with it."

Why would Matthew listen to girl advice given to him by his porn-watching, chauvinist friend? So Danielle has a reason to get angry with him, obviously! Another scene has Kelly beating Matthew up and then offering him a pill to "relieve the pain."

Naturally, Matthew ingests the pill without hesitation, in a move so dumb that it actually elicited a collective groan from the audience.

It's disappointing because this film had potential. When Danielle admits to Matthew, "I loved the way you looked at me," it is genuinely moving, and the "moral fiber" speech delivered by Matthew later on evokes the best memories of John Cusack.

Of course, no teen movie clich is left out. Greenfield includes an ethnic caricature, a climactic prom scene, and even a standing ovation that begins with one person clapping until gradually, the entire auditorium has erupted into applause. Even the "awkward geek and insecure beauty fall in love" bit has been done many times before.

However, predictability does not damn a movie, and "Girl" occasionally shows signs of being a very good genre film. It's just that Eli will then say something asinine, or the plot will take another ridiculous turn, and the film's mediocrity becomes apparent once again.