Comic Relief 

With The Girl Next Door, teen comedy is free to be funny at last.

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Let’s get this out of the way first: The Girl Next Door is pretty much a wholesale rip-off of Risky Business, with a little John Hughes and a soupçon of Something Wild thrown in for flavor. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, except that it’s something you haven’t seen a whole lot of lately. It’s a teen comedy that’s actually funny—not just outrageous, but simply, satisfyingly funny.

No one is more shocked than yours truly that those words are describing a film from Luke Greenfield (the director of The Animal) and David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg (the screenwriting team behind National Lampoon’s Van Wilder). These are the kind of people whose atrocities have caused movie lovers to fear youth-oriented gag-fests in the first place. They still have some atoning to do if they wish to preserve themselves from the fiery maw of Perdition.

But The Girl Next Door is a nice step in the right direction. We’re introduced to Matthew Kidman (Emile Hirsch), a Southern California high school senior whose academic excellence is matched only by his social maladroitness. He’s a hopeless nerd with equally hopeless nerd buddies like Eli (Chris Marquette) and Klitz (Paul Dano), the kind of guy who can only dream about the ridiculously hot housesitter named Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) who moves in next door.

Danielle, however, takes a liking to Matthew as well, flirting and coaxing him into breaking free from his nerdish ways. Matthew starts seeing more and more of Danielle—until Eli discovers a porn video that shows pretty much all of Danielle that there is to see.

The Girl Next Door gets off to a smart, slick start with a montage exposing high school reminiscence as the fantasy domain of the popular. In so doing, it points out one of the most annoying aspects of many contemporary teen comedies: As supposedly transgressive as movies like American Pie may be, they’re often absurdly sentimental, and tend to offer sermons undercutting their leering sexuality. Greenfield and company find plenty to ridicule about high school—including cheesy 1970s sex-education films—and have no qualms about earning every bit of their “R” rating without a hint of social commentary. They also give the relationship between Matthew and Danielle a great spark of chemistry, with Hirsch’s fumbling perfectly matched against all the erotic potential captured in one teasing flick of Cuthbert’s arched eyebrow.

Then Tim Olyphant appears, and the film shifts into a completely different wickedly entertaining gear. As Kelly—the porn entrepreneur who wants to lure his reluctant ex-star back into the business—Olyphant attacks his performance with the kind of unpredictable energy that makes every second he’s on screen crackle. One moment, he’s sidling up to Matthew, playing benevolent mentor in how to be a bad-ass; the next, he’s a cocked fist of impending violence when his plans are crossed. For 20 minutes, it looked certain that Chris Marquette’s foul-mouthed Eli would steal the film. Olyphant proceeds to tear it away with both hands. It’s the kind of truly great film performance that will never, ever get a whiff of love at awards time.

Olyphant’s arrival marks just the first time that The Girl Next Door lurches abruptly from Point A to Point Q. After Kelly and Danielle depart, Matthew and his pals take an impulsive road trip to an adult film industry convention in Las Vegas; later, they concoct an elaborate plan for making big bucks that most clearly evokes the Risky Business comparison. At times, scenes feel like incompatible pieces someone was unwilling to discard in the editing room, like Matthew’s rambling, Ecstasy-fueled speech at a scholarship banquet. Every 20 minutes or so, one part of The Girl Next Door ends and something only vaguely connected begins in its place. A model of clockwork plotting, it ain’t.

Yet as erratic and jarring as the film may be, it’s got guts, and as Sgt. Hartman famously said in Full Metal Jacket, sometimes guts is enough. It’s also got Timothy Olyphant. It’s got Chris Marquette. It’s got enough wicked punch lines to offset the more obvious gags. And mercy me, if that weren’t sufficient, it’s got the sense to explore the principle that the first priority of a teen comedy isn’t to be sweet, or gross, or weird, but to be funny. One more like this for Greenfield, Wagner and/or Goldberg, and maybe the tortures of the damned can be reserved for some other deserving souls.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, ***, Emile Hirsch, Elisha Cuthbert, Tim Olyphant, Rated R

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