Some movies are so much better than the sum of their parts that they defy easy explanation. A director suddenly shifts his visual style; an actor shows a previously unknown knack for comedy or drama; a screenwriter breathes life into a property we all assumed was dead. We marvel at the result, talk about how it never should have happened, and praise those involved for safeguarding their creativity against the corporate machinations of the industry. These films demonstrate the success of art in the face of commerce.
And then there are movies like The Boy Next Door, which could only exist in a place like Hollywood.
It takes a special kind of ignorance to think that Jennifer Lopez and Kristin Chenoweth’s characters are believable as best friends or that the 27-year-old Ryan Guzman would get carded in a bar, let alone be a high school student. This is a film that sets up the titular boy next door as being a caretaker for his elderly uncle and then forgets about the uncle for almost the entire film. It’s the kind of movie that thinks it’s clever because the cat jumps out and the body falls from the closet at the same time.
You know what, though? It’s not wrong. Great movies happen when everyone is on the same page. Great B-movies happen when nobody is. And The Boy Next Door is a pretty great B-movie.
Claire Peterson (Lopez) is struggling to deal with an affair by her estranged husband, Garrett (John Corbett). We know this because the movie begins with three rapid-fire flashbacks detailing the separation from start to finish. When we finally ease into the contemporary storyline, Claire and Garrett are attempting to make things work for the sake of their son, Kevin (Ian Nelson), a sickly youth who hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps as a computer programmer. One day they meet Noah (Guzman), the friendly neighbor who knows a lot about fixing cars and garage doors, and both Claire and Kevin strike up a friendship with the friendly, nearly thirty-year-old teenager.
Bonds are formed. Claire is an AP English teacher at the local high school who teaches Homer. Noah has read the old blind Greek – he assures Kevin that “The Illiad” is “good shit” – and the two quickly connect over their shared love of poetry. It is not long before Claire and Noah find themselves in bed together, and shorter still until Claire declares it a mistake that will never happen again. There’s only one problem: Noah, who is totally a teenager, will be attending Claire’s high school next semester and is determined to win her over by any means necessary, even if it means using his friendship with Kevin to drive a wedge between Claire and her husband. Or, failing that, blackmail and murder. Whatever’s easiest.
There’s more, there’s always more, but if you’ve seen a single film in the Ashley Judd oeuvre then you can likely fill in the blanks for yourself. The movie cycles through its plot points with reckless abandon, showing no interest in the type of anguished introspection that usually bogs down films about an affair. Instead, The Boy Next Door rushes from melodramatic set piece to melodramatic set piece like an Italian genre film, stopping only long enough to paint the scene in broad strokes before moving on. Meanwhile, each actor is encouraged to be big, bigger, biggest. Why waste time establishing a nuanced reason for Kevin to turn against his parents when you can just have him yell insults at the dinner table? Any challenges to the script seem to have been returned with a blank stare and a reminder that they were working on a thriller. The genre itself is the only narrative The Boy Next Door needs.
In fact, the disparate pieces fit together so well that it is tempting to treat The Boy Next Door as a self-conscious riff on the genre itself. Had any of the talent involved demonstrated a reputation or aptitude for genre satire, this would be a slam dunk; instead, it seems to be pure, stupid serendipity. Lopez does not seem the sort to take risks with her public image, nor is it keeping with director Rob Cohen’s style to make a satirical film. There is a functionality in a xXx or a Stealth that defies cynicism towards the genre; here Cohen has shot the film in a relatively straight-forward manner, demonstrating no visual winks or nods to the audience of his intentions. So we’re left with unabashed sincerity.
If there is a joke to be in on, editor Michel Aller seems to be the only one who gets it, cutting down the film’s pacing until it becomes of a blur of big performances and rapid action. Like the grandfather in The Princess Bride, Aller has cut the film down to only the “good” parts, ignoring anything that would only bore us anyways. If everything in your movie is ridiculous then congratulations, you’ve created a cohesive, but ridiculous, film.
There are good movies, there are bad movies, and then, of course, there are good bad movies. Had The Boy Next Door been any better or any worse, the entire thing would have fallen apart; good bad movies must be made earnestly but without grander aspirations in place. Barring the late-game announcement that a producer or writer viewed the film as a satire all along, The Boy Next Door will have to settle for being a truly great B-movie in a genre that needs very little introduction to audiences. Wait until it comes out on VOD and pair it with your copy of The Guest, and I promise you that you will have the genre satire double-bill to remember. Intentional or not.
The Upside: So Bad It’s Good; Ryan Guzman’s commitment to an unhinged performance
The Downside: The amount of time men take to keep explaining to Claire why it’s a good idea for her to sleep with them
On the Side: Barbara Curry is a first-time screenwriter and a former U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles. She doesn’t seem to be in on the joke, either.