“I love your mom’s cookies.”
More candidly referred to as “that spicy new JLo movie,” “The Boy Next Door” is like if “Fatal Attraction” and “Fear” had a rapey, incestuous child that could only physically be represented by the baby from “Eraserhead.” It’s fundamentally flawed on just about every single level, but it’s literally impossible not to watch. There’s something so treacherously enticing about what happens between the beginning and the end of this film that I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thoroughly intrigued about how it was going to proceed and where it ultimately was going to end up. When it eventually did come to a close, I was shocked by how far my jaw had dropped off my face. “The Boy Next Door” is a shocking, filthy, morally askew, and ethically problematic, though still terribly entertaining, B-movie that practically drowns under the weight of its A-movie ambitions. Guided by the unsteady hands of a long lost journeyman filmmaker from the early 2000s, “The Boy Next Door” is scarily questionable in all categories, especially given it’s overly serious tone and nearly unforgivable screenplay, but with its gender politics halfway out the window way before the end of the first act, this schlocky grime surprisingly salvages itself (minimally) by its sheer audacity to unapologetically observe such aberrant and trashy material with no identifiable filter for quality. Don’t mistake: This movie is bad, bad, bad…but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy every minute of my theatrical movie going experience. In fact, it may rank as one of my more fun and more memorable movie going ventures.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’re up to speed on the general gist: Claire, an emotionally crippled suburban mother (Lopez), finds herself seduced by Noah (Ryan Guzman), the ‘young’ boy who recently moved in next door, but the one night stand turns into something far more serious when the boy not only refuses to let his feelings subside, but begins to stalk her and threatens to expose their scandal. Petrified by the affections of her psychotic suitor, she’s forced into a cat-and-mouse game that has great potential to affect the livelihood of her teenage son, her best friend (Kristin Chenoweth) and even her adulterous husband (John Corbett).
With this premise, there’s a lot of room for risky mistakes and even more room to play it disappointingly safe. This is a hurdle that “The Boy Next Door” overcomes surprisingly well; this is no Lifetime movie, that is for sure, and as the film escalates, it starts to throw heaps of caution to the wind. This a real ride, one that isn’t made clear from the poor trailers, but as much as I would like for that to be my recommended vote of confidence, there’s still a laundry list of indefensible offenses made by the onscreen and technical teams. It’s disappointing too because there are enough pieces in place to have cleverly twisted the film into a very subversive, almost meta genre film. If it’s straight face had been tweaked into a crooked smile and it’s menacing stare transformed into a succession of winks, “The Boy Next Door” could probably have been much better than it had any right to be.
My biggest gripe has to come from the script, written by first time scribe Barbara Curry, but the female writing credit makes the experience that much more appalling. For all the muckraking “Gone Girl” seemed to get for its supposedly misogynist context, “The Boy Next Door” makes Gillian Flynn’s work look like a spade kitten adored by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Curry plants the story firmly in a world of clichés, from the absolutely preposterous belief that Ryan Guzman could pass as an ‘almost twenty-year-old’ high school super senior, to the eye-rolling moments like Claire curiously staring at Noah as he does various ‘manly’ activities, like dirtying himself up with auto work or deciding, generously, to fix Claire’s faulty garage door while she brings him glass after glass of lemonade. All of the signs are so clearly there for the dirty deed to go down, it’s hard to take a film that is so self-serious even slightly seriously. The dialogue, more specifically, is also all kinds of terrible, namely anything that ever comes out of Noah’s mouth, or moments of empowerment for Claire like when she defends her occupation as a literature teacher on a blind date by bringing up the net worth of J.K. Rowling. Still, there’s a lot of seemingly purposeful badness throughout the screenplay, the kind of bottom-barrel syntax that could only have been batched together with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I’ve had a weird suspicion since I saw the film that that was the script’s original intention and through poor directorial choices the film embraced a tone that it had no right to wear. But, having skimmed some interviews with the director himself, it turns out that that is far from the truth. This film became what it is almost entirely because of the hired filmmaker, and the identity of that filmmaker added a whole new understanding to a film that perplexed and magnetized me from beginning to end even though I realized from frame one how awfully mannered it was going to be.
Despite the insanity that plagues “The Boy Next Door” throughout, the biggest surprise, for me, had to be when the phrase, “Directed by Rob Cohen” blasted onto the screen at the top of the ending credits. I couldn’t believe that I had totally bypassed this information, but then I realized that “The Boy Next Door” was only as trashy and as surprisingly watchable as it was, because it was made helmed by a filmmaker with such an eclectic and intriguing resume. This wasn’t some first-timer mumbo-jumbo, this was the work of a merit-less director for hire, someone who has experienced some unexpected success, and a lot of baffling failures. For those of you who don’t know, you’ve probably seen at least three Rob Cohen movies and most likely enjoyed, to various degrees, those films as perfect examples of mid-to-late 90’s/early 2000’s hypermasculine action adventures. Among his career highlights: “Daylight,” “Dragonheart,” “The Skulls,” “xXx,” and the original “The Fast and the Furious.” His later career is less favorable as the turkey “Stealth” more or less sunk him, then he finished up the practically burnt out “Mummy” franchise with its lackluster third installment, and tried to reestablish James Patterson’s Alex Cross in a Tyler Perry-fronted reboot that was totally dead on arrival. He’s been in a funk for about a decade, but there’s certainly an identifiable understanding of the medium in his work on “The Boy Next Door.” As the man responsible for fostering the careers of both Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, Cohen’s newest would have been right at home in 2002 or 2003, especially with Jennifer Lopez in the lead (pre-“Gigli”) and maybe someone of the Paul Walker or Joshua Jackson type opposite her. As it stands, however, as one of the first new films of 2015 released with high profile Oscar films still in multiplexes around it, it has very little other than it’s riotous absurdity going for it which is ironically emphasized by Cohen’s stoic take on the material and the supposed changes that his hiring did to the script.
Rerouting back briefly to the script issues, Cohen said in a recent interview that the script was beefed up after he was brought on to direct. He called the script strangely asexual and he wanted it to be far more erotic and darker (and with more action to speak better to his sensibilities). In that tertiary department, Cohen’s skills are perfectly suited to the film’s later set pieces namely a moment involving a car careening out of control and a cross-cutting, race-against-the-clock sequence that’s really actively handled – not to mention its buckwild climax. But in the primary territories – erotic and dark – Cohen doesn’t have the stabilization to handle either tastefully; the darkness, as previously mentioned, is an aspect that greatly weakens would could have been a far more fun and purposefully hilarious film, and, simply put, this is the least sexy erotic thriller I’ve probably ever seen. The film’s central moment – the catalystic sex scene between Claire and Noah – is maybe too graphic in an amateur, late-night Cinemax kind of way, and given it’s taboo text, too voyeuristic for its own good. It goes on for way too long and is referenced in flash cuts a couple of times afterward to accentuate Noah’s disturbed psyche. As per that aforementioned Cohen interview, it turns out the cut of this scene was totally at Cohen’s discretion, and it honestly makes total sense. He’s never been a tasteful filmmaker and this singular scene epitomizes his personality; it doesn’t possess the ‘Peeping Tom’ camerawork that floods the work of someone like Michael Bay, but it’s a far cry from the stimulating eroticism that’s beautifully crafted by an artist along the lines of Steven Soderbergh.
And speaking of Steven Soderbergh, that genre-hopping, Academy Award winning director remains the only filmmaker to have found a way to mine out not only a serviceable performance from Jennifer Lopez, but a sincerely great one. Those who scoff the acting talents of JLo need only take a look at “Out of Sight” to consider the opposite side of the coin (though the evidence against the consensus pretty much starts and ends right there), and while she’s far from the worst performer in “The Boy Next Door,” Cohen, who supposedly has always wanted to work with Lopez, can’t mine a gratifying, convincing performance from her. I admire Lopez’s acceptance to get dirty, but it doesn’t provide the necessary results, and once the film flips into action movie mode, she seems decidedly out of place. It’s really unfortunate given Lopez’s role as a producer on this film too; while “Out of Sight” might be almost twenty years old, one would hope that her understanding of how strong and memorable that film is even now would impact her choices in the present, but given her track record since the cataclysmic “Gigli,” that’s desperately wishful thinking. If you have never seen “Out of Sight,” do yourself a favor and make it priority viewing. It’s one of Soderbergh’s best films with an all-star ensemble cast and incredible work from Lopez and George Clooney. There’s a late-in-the-game sex scene in that film that is arguably the classiest sex scene ever committed to film as chopped together by the great Anne V. Coates. In terms of effective sexiness, this particular scene in “Out of Sight” is basically everything the central scene in “The Boy Next Door” anxiously wishes to be, but it manages it with far less effort and a lot less hastiness. In typical Soderbergh fashion, it’s easygoing, unobtrusive, and really, really stunning to watch.
But “The Boy Next Door’s” greatest misstep is the one that needs very little discussion: the casting of Ryan Guzman. Few worse actors have ever traversed the big screen; Guzman is, simply put, one of the worst actors I’ve ever seen in a film. Beneath the abysmal collection of words that comprise every line of dialogue he has, and way below Cohen’s faulty character direction, Guzman just doesn’t possess an iota of talent. His most prolific credentials include a stint on “Pretty Little Liars” and a key role in the last two “Step Up” movies, and while “Boy Next Door” looks to utilize his appearance much like those other works, there requires a greater self-awareness and a more nuanced grasp of the trashiness to make the role work and Guzman just doesn’t get it. He’s lousy beyond comparison and by the time he dips into the conventional psycho-killer element of his character, it becomes more about the gross-out stuff that suddenly embalms the climax than anything Guzman brings to the equation.
But ironically, that’s what kind of saves “The Boy Next Door” as a crazed experience; it’s third act balls-to-the-walls crash landing. It lets itself go in a way that is totally unexpected, and in a dreadfully gory way that makes for rousing theatrical involvement. My theater was so invested come the film’s climax that every moment got either a laugh or a gasp or a funny combination of the two. This is a movie that deserves to be seen in a packed theater, but only for free and maybe under some kind of intoxication. If the whole movie had been more in keeping with this kind of style, it would have been a real blast, and not a backward, accidental comedy.
Sure there are issues here that are pretty much beyond repair, but a part of me wishes there existed a version of “The Boy Next Door” as directed by Paul Verhoeven, or Brian De Palma, or even David Cronenberg, filmmakers who can really make trashiness sing, or turn it into some provocative, commentary-laced joy ride, or a macabre fantasy. Rob Cohen, given his background, doesn’t understand these principals and therefore rightfully belongs in a decade-passed cinescape that saw his action films attended to by the sheer veracity of their intentions – to entertain, to thrill, and to raise as few questions as possible. Cohen’s latest film is worth discussing simply because of how inexcusable some of its affronts are and how insulting the performances, some of the imagery, and almost the entirety of the script are. Still, I would by lying if I didn’t devote my full attention to the film’s seemingly endless 90-minute runtime. This movie is, for lack of a better phrase, a piece of shit. But it’s a piece of shit that I’m kind of happy I saw, and I highly recommend it to anybody who can find a way to sneak into a packed showing without paying and with a bottle of wine in tow.
This is the most ‘January’ movie of all time, and with that in mind, I can’t say it’s a total failure. Hell, I enjoyed it more than “Blackhat,” and I might have laughed more during it than in “The Wedding Ringer.” How about that?
Review by Mike Murphy