Studio comedies in the early years of the 2000s seemed to be in a state of flux. The Farrelly brothers had already peaked in their career during the back half of the 1990s, and it would be until the back half of the first decade of the 21st century when Judd Apatow’s sensibilities would shift the scene toward R-rated raunch. The front half of that decade, though, was a time when audiences were apparently seeking the likes of American Pie everywhere they went. Chris and Paul Weitz’s irreverent comedy was something of a revolution, introducing a generation of ribald college kids as the subjects of comic shenanigans and paving the way for similar movies to dominate the domestic box office. Stuck in the middle of this trend, in 2004, was The Girl Next Door.

The director was Luke Greenfield, just coming off of 2001’s The Animal, starring Rob Schneider as a common-variety idiot whose organs are replaced with those of various animals. It was a rather unfortunate excuse for a popular, Happy Madison-adjacent comic to take on a silly persona. Greenfield would go on to direct 2011’s Something Borrowed, about a romantic quadrangle of sorts, and 2014’s Let’s Be Cops, a negligible affair about a couple of dopey guys who pretend to be policemen for a series of violent gags. None of these movies—with the exception of the best moments in Something Borrowed, a relatively under-appreciated movie that got a bad rap—had the dignity of his second feature, only sharing its affinity for a great soundtrack.

The plot follows Matthew Kidman (Emile Hirsch), the high-school senior in question, who has been accepted into Georgetown University but finds himself unable to afford the tuition. Bored with his existence, beyond having a crucial part in his school’s sponsorship of a Cambodian student’s bid to come to the States, Matthew’s life is entirely upended with the introduction of a new next-door neighbor. He finds Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) to be stunning and just mysterious enough to be alluring. His friends, Eli (Chris Marquette) and Klitz (Paul Dano, and yes, that’s the character’s name), are attentive enough to the adult film industry (if you know what I mean) to recognize Danielle right off the bat as an actress from at least one of the movies that Eli owns.

Their suggestion is to romance her in the same way as the man in such a movie might: invite her to a hotel, where he can have his way with her. This scene is where the movie announces itself as something really special. Not only does Danielle clock Matthew’s intentions and his friends’ involvement in them right away, but she also voices the frustration that she wanted Matthew to be a different kind of guy. Almost immediately, Matthew becomes entangled with Kelly (Timothy Olyphant), Danielle’s producer and (much older) ex-boyfriend, who lords over her schedule, appearance and personal life with the vise-grip of an authoritarian pimp. Here is where the screenwriters and Greenfield separate this film’s vision of sexuality as entertainment from so many of its contemporaries: Danielle enjoys her work, though she does not enjoy the environment of it.

It is both a celebration of a young woman’s sexuality and an admonishment of the male democratization of it. This is further exemplified in a scene wherein Eli and Klitz, attending a premiere so that Matthew can win Danielle back from Kelly, pose as producers for the attention of a voluptuous actress, eventually gaining as much attention from her fellow-actor boyfriend (and his intimidating stature). Until the veil drops, Greenfield is smart to show us the actors’ enthusiasm at the mere idea of working on a new project. These small moments feel radical for a movie of this sort in this genre. We are used to white, nebbish young men frightened of their own sexuality to the point of abusing it with women who are essentially cardboard cutouts. Here, Matthew grows through his relationship with Danielle. It is not she whose character is defined by a relationship with a man. The film subverts that expectation.

It does so again with the finale, during which the trio stage the production of, seemingly, an adult movie against the backdrop of Matthew’s prom experience with Danielle. Without giving anything away, the adult material being shot is used for something radically different. Meanwhile, the development of Matthew and Danielle’s relationship hasn’t simply stopped. The culmination of it is a love scene that is truly tender, not just because the guy gets the girl, but because of how intimate it is. (Returning to that soundtrack, which also includes the likes of Queen, the Who and Marvin Gaye, the needle drop of David Gray’s gorgeous “This Year’s Love” during both their first kiss and their first love scene doesn’t hurt.) It also helps that Hirsch and Cuthbert share tremendous chemistry and exude a lot of charisma in these roles.

Kelly is the trickiest character to consider here, and Olyphant’s performance is perfectly balanced between the two modes of the character: a bear-huggy big-brother type and an often-violent sociopath with no compunction for politeness. His presence introduces a bit of danger into the rest of the proceedings, but the entire point of Kelly’s existence is to put a face on the part of Danielle’s job from which she needs to escape. The Girl Next Door was, to say the least, not a critical favorite upon release, but it deserves another look as a forgotten masterpiece of 2000s-era sex comedies. This was one of the very best films of 2004.

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