Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Wrath Of Achilles

For our Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.

Year: 2015
Director: Rob Cohen
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Kristin Chenoweth, Ryan Guzman
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

What makes a movie good? Production values? Performances? Layered subtext about the Irish potato famine? These questions get infinitely more complex when you dive into the world of genre films. Many of you may have noticed my adjusted scale slasher movies, which is the only possible explanation for Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Gravity getting the same score. So how do I come to these impossible conclusions?

The new J-Lo thriller The Boy Next Door is an excellent illustration of the process. This little cheese puff has over-baked performances, dialogue so wooden you could kill a vampire with it, and a thoroughly trashy sensibility. But the film is so sincerely, effortfully committed to producing a perfectly disposable morsel of popcorn movie magic that it's beyond reproach for being exactly that. Its goals are far from lofty, but it accomplishes them with aplomb.

It's not quite clever enough to earn itself a truly reputable score even on my scale, but The Boy Next Door captures the spirit of the Dance. Sure, every plot beat is predictable from the opening credits. But the pleasure of the film comes from enacting that exact generic formula in a way that's just different enough to be exciting. Sometimes an audience just wants to sit back, turn off their brains, and have a good time, which this film faithfully delivers. 

Also included on the delivery list: perfect sideburns.

The plot, insofar as it matters, goes as follows: high school teacher Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez) is unhappily married to a cheating husband (John Corbett of United States of Tara), who she can't quite bring herself to separate from. When her son Kevin (Ian Nelson) befriends the hunky next door neighbor Noah (Ryan Guzman), she finds herself irresistibly attracted to him although he's a student in her class.

Don't worry, he's "20". We wouldn't want this to be too illegal and/or un-hunky.

After a disastrous double date with her BFF/vice principal Vicky (Kristin Chenoweth), the vulnerable Claire gives in to temptation and hops onto Noah's ark. After a steamy, unforgettable night, Noah becomes obsessive, attempting to seduce, menace, and blackmail Claire into running away with him. His violent temper soon threatens to destroy everything she holds dear.

Between several surprisingly high tension action sequences held together by a wing, a prayer, and a handheld camera (possibly operated by a bungee jumper) lies howlingly trite dialogue like "I'm not following you... I live next door." A bully who looks like Ed Sheeran attempts to sound threatening while name dropping Wizards of Waverly Place. There is equal screentime allotted to thematic throughlines wrangled around both Homer's The Iliad and a plate of cookies. So, North by Northwest this ain't. 

The power of The Boy Next Door lies in the fact that it throws caution to the wind to embrace its pedigree. Nothing in this film is meant to be taken seriously on any level other than unadulterated fun. It might not be quite as exhilarating as it wants to be, laboring as it does under a first act in which the plot is a little more lethargic and Lopez acts like she's a Barbie that has just been brought to life via a gypsy curse. However as the plot picks up and the actress shakes off the slick MTV fairy dust, the film really comes into its own as a pitch perfect disasterpiece.

That dude sure loves belly buttons. He kneeled all the way down there just to- oh.

While The Boy Next Door is a generic, glossy thriller at best, it has some remarkable idiosyncrasies that help it rise to the top of the heap. First, coming as it does from Blumhouse Productions, the film abruptly veers toward gory psycho horror in the final act, even including an honest-to-goodness Spring-Loaded Cat scare. Of course, this also means that Claire makes her share of bad horror movie decisions, which only ramps up the audience investment in the implacable formula of the film. Sometimes you just gotta yell at that lazy-ass character who forgets to double tap - it's human nature.

In addition to this surprising turn of events, The Boy Next Door is almost shockingly shot from a female perspective. Although the director is a man, the writer and star are both women, and the film's content is a magnetic reversal of common genre tropes, objectifying its male antagonist into oblivion. That's right, Ryan Guzman gets the full Bond Girl deluxe treatment. The camera lingers on his taut, muscular flesh, barely hidden beneath thin, exposing layers of fabric. You can almost see the sweat beading on the camera lens. 

This is not a screengrab from the movie, but it ain't too far from the truth.

And I won't get too into this because it's not like the movie has any similar inclinations, but the entire driving plot is centered around the idea of male entitlement gone wrong. Every problem in the film is caused by either a cheating husband or a petulant, greedy boy. It's important to note that it is not Claire's sexual transgression that brings the hammer down upon her and her family, but rather Noah's mind having been poisoned by unrealistic expectations. It's fascinating, to say the least.

And there's even another cherry on top of all of that. Although the thriller elements of the plot feel like they are pitched squarely toward the relatively wholesome teen audience, this film has an R-rating for a reason. It could never in a million years be considered a hard R, but the film sets low expectations for itself and exceeds them with gusto. Claire and Noah's night together is about as explicit as a film can get without actually showing nipples. I definitely saw fingers going places that would not be permitted in a PG-13. Let's just say that whatever drama Claire went through afterwards might actually have been worth it. It's a steamy, steamy scene and an utter shock to the system in this bland slate of January programming we've been getting in 2015.

Also there's cursing and gore, so I feel right at home.

All that's missing is a chainsaw and a scene at a drive-in.

OK, some quick thoughts before we wrap up. First, Kristin Chenoweth is the clear standout, providing a generic Sassy Best Friend role with some real fire and panache. Second, modern technology is integrated more successfully than ever here, including a scene that somehow turns deleting files into an action-packed extravaganza. You know how much I love my tech not uncomfortably shoved into the narrative (*cough cough* The Fault in Our Stars).

All in all, The Boy Next Door is shameless fun, recommended to anyone who doesn't want to think to hard but still feel like they got their money's worth of soap bubble entertainment. Hollywood hasn't made an idiotic film this airy in a long time, so please don't just write it off. Respect the genre. Enjoy yourself.

TL;DR: The Boy Next Door is pulpy trash, but who says that has to be a bad thing?
Rating: 7/10
Should I Spend Money On This? As long as you know what you're in for, I'd give a resounding yes.
Word Count: 1223


  1. Caught this a couple of nights ago. It was, with only a few hiccups, an amazingly enjoyable serving of sleaze.

    Nonetheless, I gotta disagree that it's not a hard R. To wit: "I definitely saw fingers going places that would not be permitted in a PG-13." Yeah! Like an eye socket!

    (At the end of the finale, I was disappointed they didn't keep to grand slasher tradition. I kept expecting Guzman's stunt double to come out of the barn screaming "CLAIRE" or possibly "PATROCLUS," and continue trying to kill her family, ideally with the very flames of his burning flesh. Now that's what I call a missed opportunity.)

    1. I'm so glad you liked it! Sometimes I feel like the lone soldier marching for this movie. I had such a good time!