½*/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
starring Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, John Corbett, Kristin Chenoweth
screenplay by Barbara Curry
directed by Rob Cohen
by Bill Chambers Every once in a while, the absence of Roger Ebert becomes piercingly clear--like when J-Lo is gifted with a "first edition" of The Iliad in The Boy Next Door, a moment of Hollywood illiteracy so quintessential that it might've once seemed contrived for the sake of an Ebert quip. But whether or not the filmmakers realized how inapt their choice of Homer was (screenwriter Barbara Curry has disavowed any credit), this is an effective bit of characterization. The gifter is the titular boy next door, Noah (Ryan Guzman); the giftee is Jennifer Lopez's Mrs. Claire Petersen, an English teacher at his new school. Noah, although capable of bluffing his way through a conversation about Classics, can't be expected to know the publishing history of The Iliad--it's a nice, antiquey copy he thought would impress her, though he plays it cool, claiming he found it at a yard sale when he probably shoplifted it from a vintage bookstore. Claire should correct him, given her vocation, but why spoil a thoughtful gesture? And besides, that sort of pedantry bespeaks age, ultimately, and the generation gap between them is not something she wants underscored, because she's a middle-aged single mother enjoying the attentions of a younger man. Far from being the picture's nadir, it's really as elegant as its writing ever gets.
19-year-old Noah has moved into the neighbourhood ostensibly to care for his uncle (Jack Wallace), the world's sickliest man, who lurches into the movie on a scooter looking like the dying E.T.. Noah quickly ingratiates himself with Claire and her 17-year-old son, Kevin (Ian Nelson), filling the John Corbett-shaped hole in their lives with his mechanical know-how and by pep-talking the latter about girls and bullies. He's the Fonz--and like the Fonz, or those vampires in Twilight, it's difficult to understand why he still bothers with high school. (Shades, too, of David from last year's The Guest, minus the smouldering intensity and mythology underpinnings.) Claire can't help but admire his buff posterior through his bedroom window from her own, and of course he wants to bang Claire, because she's J-Lo and he's a teenage boy--but a voting-age teenage boy, because whatever this movie's about, it's not about statutory rape. Lopez may have obvious sympathies with the material--she told SELF that she could relate to Claire's attraction to Noah, having recently dated a man twenty years her junior--but she appears uninterested in challenging herself or a fanbase that is pretty much all cat ladies at this point, devouring the portion of her filmography curated by Lifetime. Lopez's partnering with Blumhouse, the production company that has carved a niche for itself in marketing low-budget fare with high-concept hooks to the mainstream, suggested both that she'd accepted her has-been status and that she was willing to try something new, but instead Blumhouse conformed to her diminished ambition.
Indeed, The Boy Next Door is Lifetime-ready have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too crap about a victimized woman turned righteous avenger in the last five minutes, the "victim" in this case being a mature woman/teacher who sleeps with, then rejects, a kid/student--a power imbalance the film never adequately addresses. Noah's transcripts of course reveal a history of violence, causing me to wonder why in movies like this background checks are always conducted once the shit's already hit the fan. Also, what did they expect? The guy has yet to graduate at nineteen and his favourite class is Punching Bag. (Aside: Are punching bags commonly found in high-school gymnasiums?) Bland Guzman, the epitome of how Frank Langella describes today's young male stars in his dishy memoir Dropped Names ("a sexless set of store-bought muscles below interchangeable screw-top heads" ), would probably be a lot more menacing if he weren't, for example, dressed like Bert from "Sesame Street" while holding Claire's family hostage, but then that detail kind of hammers home a fundamental youth that makes his grisly fate seem undeserved, even if he has committed his share of crimes of passion. There are plenty of laughs if you want to MST3K this thing, starting with "and Kristin Chenoweth," who plays the morbidly-unqualified school principal and Claire's saucy confidante. Still, I'm not fond of that kind of cynicism, nor The Boy Next Door's own particular brand, either.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Universal presents The Boy Next Door on Blu-ray in a handsome 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. The ARRI Alexa-generated image is impeccably detailed but overlain with faux-grain (or amped-up noise) that keeps a digital sharpness at bay and lends the film a reasonably cinematic patina. HD brings into relief that Lopez--for the first half of the picture, at least--is getting the diffusion filters (i.e., glamour lighting) and a honey-toned colour-grade that definitely subdues in her absence, but it's no more comical than anything else in The Boy Next Door. Excellent dynamic range shows that post-celluloid camera sensors have come a long way. The accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA track presents a perfunctory quasi-horror soundmix with state-of-the-art depth and clarity. Also on board is a feature-length commentary from downward-spiralling helmer Rob Cohen, who calls it his "first" movie for Blumhouse, which apparently gives final cut to the director. Eventually indistinguishable from the attendant descriptive-video service track for the blind, Cohen's yakker often borders on logorrheic in the way of this description of J-Lo: "She has an almost effortless command of the whole emotional palette of a woman's ability to grapple with the world." Setting up the infamous Iliad scene, he says, "You begin to realize that Noah identifies with Achilles." Honestly, I didn't. I did like Cohen's pride at fashioning a locker door out of lead so that it would look extra painful for but not hurt the actor having his head smashed into it.
Video-based supplements include a making-of featurette (9 mins., HD) that talks about the challenge of producing a film for $4.5M (with egos as big as these, is the subtext) and credits Cohen with shoehorning a car chase into the script as well as the "death-by-V8" climax. There are also five completely negligible deleted scenes (10 mins. in toto, HD), not counting this for-the-ages dialogue exchange after Noah has struggled to catch up with Claire on a hiking trail:
CLAIRE: You're just gonna have to double up on your Wheaties.
NOAH: Eh, I'm more of a Lucky Charms kind of guy.
CLAIRE: The one with the elf?
NOAH: Excuse me? He's a leprechaun, and he's what makes them so magically delicious.
CLAIRE: That's right.
NOAH: Ah, come on, you gotta have at least one guilty pleasure. Everyone does.
CLAIRE: Mmm. Um...
NOAH: Your secret's safe with me.
CLAIRE: Cocoa Puffs.
Self-loading startup trailers round out the platter. The disc is packaged with DVD and Ultraviolet copies of the film.