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Neighborhood Watch: Emile Hirsch discovers that Elisha Cuthbert is more interesting than the average 'Girl Next Door.'

Moral Fiber

'The Girl Next Door' attempts an ethics lecture about living with porn stars

By Richard von Busack

EVEN HONEST smut gets fatally complicated in this movie-making era. As erotica, director Luke Greenfield's The Girl Next Door is a washout, despite its R rating. And it's odd that he chose a title that's already been taken by a documentary about the porn star Shirley Valentine. If you don't count a truly PG sex scene in the back of a prom limo, the height of sensuality in the film is the shot of two weary-looking "porn stars" tongue-wrestling (and no movie image could better illustrate H.L. Mencken's contention: "When I see two women kissing, it reminds me of prizefighters shaking hands.") The Girl Next Door takes the safe route of bait and switch with its audience--a lot of whom will be underage kids who see it by theater switching, so there is justice.

This strangely chaste comedy/drama concerns Matthew, a tight-wound suburban boy who worships JFK and wants to go to Georgetown and become the next president. He's played by Emile Hirsch, the spoiled Sedgewick Bell in The Emperor's Club. Everything's working well for him, except for his worries about a speech he has to make on the subject of "moral fiber."

Then fate slips him up by putting a porn star named Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert of 24, something like the young Deborah Harry) into the house next door. She's come up to L.A. to house-sit for her aunt. Matthew's horndog buddy Eli (Chris Marquette) spots the girl in a video and begs his shy friend to act like a master pimp. But when Matthew's offer of a motel room and a bottle of Jack Daniels merely insults the girl's chastity ("Is that all you think of me?"), she starts hanging out again with her movie producer (Timothy Olyphant). Thus Matthew must figure out a way to lure Danielle back from the world of porn, even chasing her to Las Vegas.

The third act looks as if it was assembled like movie mad libs. The need to imitate Risky Business clashes with the movie's aim to make Matthew show his moral fiber--a quality he eventually defines at a school assembly as "finding that one thing you really care about and going after her." (And any ethics teachers in the audience will snap their pencils in despair.)

However, the film's nervousness and second thoughts give it personality. It's a lot more like the troubled-teen sex comedies of the '70s than a slick piece of smutty sitcom like American Pie. Greenfield knows his decade. He includes a 1974 fake birth-control film for high schools titled Me, a Teenage Daddy that's good enough to fool you into wondering whether if it is found footage. And the opening sequences of Westport High are tense and even threatening; they induce the claustrophobia of a good prison movie. Olyphant steals this show as the unpredictable, hot-tempered Kelly, capable of friendliness as well as sudden violence. However, Greenfield really should have forsworn the Long Duk Dong gag about the Cambodian exchange student Samnang (Ulysses Lee). Making things dumber, Samnang is referred to as "the next Albert Einstein--maybe he'll cure cancer." Maybe some of the filmmakers here truly do suppose Einstein was famed for his scientific efforts to eradicate cancer.


The Girl Next Door (R; 109 min.), directed by Luke Greenfield, written by David Wagner, Brent Goldberg and Stuart Blumberg, photographed by Paul Haslinger and starring Emile Hirsch and Elisha Cuthbert, plays at selected theaters valleywide.


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From the April 14-20, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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