Review: The Boy Next Door

The Boy Next Door is a film alive with the sense of discovery that “yes, a film can be this bad in 2015”, and it is astoundingly welcome for this reason. Directed Rob Cohen, who still exists apparently, and starring Jennifer Lopez, who also sometimes remembers that she is an actual person, The Boy Next Door is a riot, plain and simple, and it seems to have absolutely no sense that it is. Just the idea alone works wonders: a high school English teacher (Jennifer Lopez) who has an affair with local resident supposed-nice-guy, takes-care-of-his-paraplegic-uncle, male-model, good-with-his-hands-if-you-know-what-I-mean Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman). All is well and good, until he turns out to be a particularly abusive male-privilege hound who obsesses over her and is willing to kill to get what he wants.

It just reeks of a certain sort of “this really belongs in the early 90s” erotic thriller amazement that is so special today it can’t but be passed up. Thankfully, the actual film lowers itself to the occasion of its concept. It is a truly awful film, a work of such pure incompetency it really ought to be seen by everyone with more than a touch of investment in cinema as a craft and art, if only as a case-study in what not to do when making a film. And in how to do all of these things wonderfully and without an ounce of apology.

The dialogue. Oh my, where to begin. From the mind of a child, I suppose, for this dialogue could have come from nowhere else. Honest-to-god, there is a scene in The Boy Next Door where Jennifer Lopez and Chadmeister McBrewsky engage in verbal foreplay in public over the subject of Homer and the Iliad while not only proceeding to blanket the discussion in a velvety layer of crippling disinterestedness but also plain getting basic information about the book completely wrong. There’s bone-dry and then there’s bone-headed, and the latter is infinitely more appealing than the former. The latter, thankfully, is the state pretty much the entire film operates within from beginning to end. And none of this has anything on a line involving cookies that is apparently under the misconception that it makes any sense, or that “cookies” is some sort of metaphor for …breasts? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell what madness bubbles beneath the thin veneer of normality, a normality that The Boy Next Door puts so little effort into maintaining and manicuring.

As if this wasn’t enough, the film straight up invents ways for films to be bad I hadn’t even expected, as if it (almost) wishes it upon itself. Take the visuals for example. Bland, unexceptional, bored, surely these are apt descriptors? Not quite; while the shot selection itself is vapid and useless, the film’s color scheme is surprisingly thoughtful and intentional. It’s awful, of course, being almost entirely orange and teal in the sort of way I though we’d moved long past (although that new Mad Max trailer promises otherwise). And I’m not just talking about the shading on the lighting; the diegetic world of the film, the very objects on the screen, seem intentionally beset by a layer of anti-emotional orange and teal. The damn dishes Lopez has in her house are almost all orange and teal, and they are often suspiciously positioned so as to specifically say “hey, we’re orange and teal, check it out”.

The end result is such a lovingly disgusting plastic coating over every single thing in the film, and it all feels so intentional and conscious. I’d imagined that the visuals for this film would be an after-thought, but this couldn’t have been anything but front and center in the filmmaking process; it’s as if the first time set designer thought it would be cool if they could add a layer of visual panache to the film, and then did the only thing they could think of: look up “cinematography” on the internet. Then, seeing all this orange and teal everyone was talking about, they thought “oh man, this orange and teal sure is a popular discussion topic these days, let me put this in my film now”. In doing so, they never bothered to actually click on the forum posts to discover that almost every comment about the technique is negative, or that it is, without question, the most soul-sucking form of cinema-as-color one can imagine, making every shot and image out to be a glisteningly grotesque movie poster or a music video.

And all of it so cheerfully lacking in substance too. I suppose you might say, and by this I mean the producers might say, the film is a sort of commentary on sexual abuse and male privilege in an environment that forces women into difficult positions and then blames them for it. This is true in the way Plan 9 From Outer Space is an intentional expose of 1950s jingoism and xenophobia. Perhaps true in spite of itself, but more assumed than fought for, and wholly besides the point. By virtue of having a male and a female in the film, it cannot but at some level unwittingly say something about gender constructs and oppression, but to excuse the film for doing so is nothing more than looking for any port in the storm. It is a bad, awe-inspiringly superficial film with nothing to say about gender, and it does not expose anything other, better films haven’t been working towards for years.

Something else acts against a feminist reading as well: that it commits the sin of excusing Lopez’s kind-of-husband for his affair simply because she, after functionally divorcing him for this affair, also engaged in something that absolutely does not qualify as an affair, but which they film absolutely needs us to think of as one. The Boy Next Door falls prey to the same old faux gender equality masculine-privilege wherein the female is as guilty as the male even though the male’s actions were objectively a greater break of trust. But we live in a world where male sexuality is validated over female sexuality, and a woman who has a supposed, kind-of, not-really affair becomes implicitly more evil or wrongheaded (or at least less sensible) than a male who actually does have an affair. This is gender discrimination against females under the supposed claim of equality. The Boy Next Door is nothing particularly new or progressive in this regard, despite the fact that it at least reverses decades of psycho-female-stalker stereotypes where-in women are too attached and power-hungry and unable to overcome loss and must push themselves onto their men at any cost (fitting, since these are all things society excuses men for doing all the time). At least The Boy Next Door is in the right wheelhouse where this is concerned, but it’s too little, too late.

And all of this without discussing how the film is just such a perfect recreation of everything that made the sadly-defunct erotic thriller genre so wonderfully awful twenty years ago. As a culture, we’ve been so far down the hole of early ’90s nostalgia for the past few years that we’ve lost the ability to explore the period in any terms other than glowingly, sickeningly sticky-sweet ear whispers. It is important, if nothing else, to remind us that much of the period was a pop-culture throwaway meaningful today almost purely for alien-artifact museum-piece value. That is exactly what The Boy Next Door feels like: a relic from a past time period where bad movies knew how to have fun with themselves, even when they took themselves completely seriously. This is not a good movie, but a good late winter treat amidst the doldrums of the years off-handed monsters? I’ll take it.

Score: I couldn’t begin…


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