Saturday, January 24, 2015

Fatal Attraction: THE BOY NEXT DOOR

A short, silly psycho stalker movie, The Boy Next Door offers serviceable low-rent pleasures. These sorts of films tap into anxieties about sex and secrecy, worrying that one wrong private decision can have horrible public consequences. Here a high school teacher (Jennifer Lopez) finds her eye wandering to the neighbor’s housesitter, his 19-year-old dropout nephew (Ryan Guzman). He’s a fit young handy man, introducing himself by offering to make her garage door go up again. Later, after flirting corny come-ons and discovering they share a favorite book (The Iliad, of all things), he seduces her. It’s a one-night-stand she immediately regrets. She may be estranged from her cheating husband (John Corbett), but she hasn’t given up on her marriage. She’d hate for a fling to ruin chances of fixing her life, a very real possibility as the boy next door refuses to take “never again” for an answer. What follows is a faithfully formulaic escalation that moves too fast to let a little silliness slow it down.

We go to the movies for all sorts of reasons. This isn’t a movie to satisfy most of them. Its dialogue is preposterous. Its twists can be seen coming. Its characters are paper thin, with motivations prone to switch for whatever the plot needs next. It’s silly and more than its fair share of stupid. It does little that wasn’t done before, and better, in 1996’s Mark Wahlberg/Reese Witherspoon teen thriller Fear. I could sit here and pick it apart for hours. And yet! And yet I didn’t mind it so much. It’s ridiculous and dumb, but so what? It has J.Lo looking fabulous, wielding considerable sex appeal in a part that transforms what could be a simpering woman-in-danger role into something sturdy through her presence. It has director Rob Cohen staging sensual scenes of desire, decent jump scares, effective growing paranoia and eventual violence. It’s not a good movie, but it sure is fun enough in the moment.

J.Lo makes a convincing cougar next door, staring out the window at the boy, his muscles rippling, sweat dripping, billowing curtains barely blocking her view. Later, she’s at her wit’s end trying to act like nothing’s wrong, especially as the boy lingers, menacingly hanging around her family, making instantly close friends with her son (Ian Nelson), inviting himself over for dinner, and dripping hardly-hidden innuendoes into conversation. “I love your mom’s…cookies,” is just one of many lines that straddle a line between threatening and goofy. Once it becomes clear she’s not interested, he gets even worse. He registers to finish his degree and hacks into the school email to get in her class. He turns her son against her. He threatens to blackmail her. He cuts the breaks on her husband’s car. He threatens a potentially sympathetic vice principal (Kristin Chenoweth). There’s something not right about him. Guzman gives a creepily dead-eyed performance that reads as generic model hunk in the opening act, but then turns instantly into stone-cold insanity.

By the time she sees his stalker-wall-of-photos and hears his smarmy self-righteous entitlement, it’s clear he’s not unlike a particular brand of Internet troll, raining sexist abuse upon her and yet hypocritically claiming he’s the victim in all this. More than once he howls at her something along the lines of, “How can you do this to me?” As if her turning him down is the real injustice. Given that, it’s easy to root for J.Lo to teach him a lesson, reclaim her life and, you know, kick him in the boing-loings at the very least. There’s enough believable chemistry between the leads in the first several minutes, and menace in the stalking and threatening that takes up the rest of the runtime, that the simple story works. It’s exactly what the movie needs to operate and not a bit more. Though, what with J.Lo’s Fly Girl start and Guzman’s two appearances in fun Step Up films, I kind of wished they had a big dance number. It wouldn't have made a goofy little movie loaded up with Freudian undercurrents, Oedipal references, and an actual cat scare any more ridiculous.

That missed opportunity aside, Cohen shoots Barbara Curry’s clunky script with energy. He and she are committed to the unapologetic trashiness, bringing the film a bit beyond what could’ve been routine Lifetime-style hot button insinuations by providing carefully framed, suggestively lit steamy sex and just-brutal-enough violence. Sometimes, there’s even a nice solid bit of blocking, like a scene in which the boy confronts J.Lo in the kitchen. Father and son are in the next room, out of focus in the background left of frame, while the boy backs her into a counter at the far right, forcing himself between her and what she hopes to maintain. That’s just good filmmaking, expressing in images what the script rather simply spells out. Take sturdy construction like that, add some star power, some goofy chills (of the sexy and scary varieties), and some good laughs (with and at the movie), you end up with half-decent cheesy sleaze.

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