“The Boy Next Door” Review: An Applebee’s Commercial Has More Emotional Range
After learning of her husband’s torrid affair with his secretary, a recently separated teacher (Jennifer Lopez) tries to start a new life with her son (Ian Nelson). Things become complicated when Noah (Ryan Guzman), the young nephew of her elderly neighbor, moves in next door. A moment of heated passion between the two of them turns into a nightmare of obsession and rage.
In theory, The Boy Next Door should work. There is an entire subgenre of cinema devoted to women who fall for men—sometimes these men are available, but often they are married—and then these women become complete psychopaths when their love goes unrequited. From Fatal Attraction to Swimfan, romantic thrillers have not painted the most favorable portrait of women; point of fact, it gets to be fairly insulting after a while. Therefore the idea of screenwriter Barbara Curry gender-reversing the obsessive antagonist is intriguing if for no other reason than it levels the playing field.
Unfortunately, Curry wasn’t interested in anything so noble. By her own account, the reason The Boy Next Door exists is that she ran past a “dream house” one day and remembered that a “bad boy” who attended school with her son lived across the street. This is actually strikingly relevant as the end result of this innocuous event is a film whose components never feel connected, but merely linked by proximity to one another. The movie is next door to steamy romance, but doesn’t live there; it is also tension-adjacent, but doesn’t even reside in that neighborhood.
What little potential is offered by the inverted construction of a tired conceit is squandered almost immediately. Lopez’s performance here is a stark reminder of how desperately she needs a premier director in her corner.He’s as intimidating as an Abercrombie catalog and only as frightening as watching a toddler throw a tantrum in a grocery store. Steven Soderbergh remains the elicitor of her best performance—in Out of Sight—but in the perpetually inept hands of Rob Cohen (xXx, Stealth), Lopez turns in one of her weakest performances to date. That weakness of performance translates to a weakness in our protagonist that is just as insulting as the depiction of women in the aforementioned onslaught of female stalker thrillers tends to be. That’s not to say Lopez is the only weak link in The Boy Next Door, and in fact the cumulative range of emotion displayed by the entire cast wouldn’t hold up under the rigorous standards of an Applebee’s commercial. Still, the lack of strength in our heroine is what is makes this film unbearable.
Barbara Curry also admits that part of the inspiration for this script was the real world case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher in Washington State who had a sexual relationship with a twelve-year-old student that resulted in two children and a second-degree rape conviction for Letourneau. Really, Curry? That’s your model for Lopez’s character? How are we to root for that character on paper, much less when Lopez plays her as a completely hapless victim who also has a sexual relationship with a student? This may be why our protagonist feels like the broadly drawn titillating figures brandished across the front of cheap romance novels which, again given the inspiration here, is doubly gross.
Guzman is no better, the Step Up franchise star seeming to go to great lengths to prove that he should only be in movies where his chief obligation is to dance. The film tries impotently to sell the audience on his being a terrifying psychopath, a criminal mastermind whose outward charm is a devious mask for his sinister alter ego. Sorry movie, he’s not a criminal mastermind; he’s merely an enormous bastard. He’s as intimidating as an Abercrombie catalog and only as frightening as watching a toddler throw a tantrum in a grocery store. What was therefore supposed to be white-knuckle suspense during the screening turned into pockets of uproarious laughter as the audience couldn’t help noticing that his villainous machinations only succeeded via the utter stupidity of every other character in the movie.
It seems as if Blumhouse Productions is fully aware of this problem, as out of nowhere this sexy thriller takes a hard left turn into horror territory. Prior to this third act switch, the involvement of Blumhouse was utterly baffling. Then came the old man popping up to scream at the camera and the old standard toss-the-cat fake-out scare to give the illusion of horror. By the time you watch a character’s eye get explicitly gouged out near the climax, the changeover is so flimsy and forced that the whole movie becomes a tone-deaf mess.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with entertainment, and not every film must climb to lofty artistic heights. There is merit in pleasing a crowd, but there is also craft in making even the most commercial of thrillers. When no regard for that craft is displayed by the writer, director, and cast of a movie, where is the impetus for us to care even enough to be entertained? This isn’t an issue of having impossible expectations, The Boy Next Door can’t even manage to clear the low bar established by other lazy, January-released thrillers.
How It Stacks Up
Here’s the biggest problem with The Boy Next Door, and what should clearly cement its failings, it’s not even the best Jennifer Lopez stalker movie. Though not even in the ballpark of outstanding, Michael Apted does a far better job establishing tension and, you know, characters in 2002’s Enough than anything Cohen is able to muster in The Boy Next Door. Who would have thought that Enough would be enough for us?
Here again, a movie where it is the male component of the romance equation that takes a serious detour into Crazy Town. But while Fear feels as trashy as J-Lo’s lurid sex scene with her character’s nineteen-year-old student, it manages to achieve this silly little feat of actually being entertaining. Again, it’s not a question of the type of movie being made, it’s instead about caring about the movie you’re making regardless of genre. It is admittedly true that Fear has unquestionably the better cast—Mark Wahlberg, Reese Witherspoon, Alyssa Milano, and William Petersen—but where Ryan Guzman can’t sell menace to a box of nervous kittens, Wahlberg’s simple chest-beating gesture is tremendously off-putting.