Psychosexual thrillers are like cookies. They’re fairly simple to make and if you have the key ingredients, chances are they will probably taste good no matter your level of culinary skill. Then again, if something is off – too much of one thing, not enough of the other – then you’ll notice immediately and become displeased. This is certainly the case with “The Boy Next Door,” a limp psychosexual thriller that takes a promisingly trashy conceit (a sexy high school teacher played by Jennifer Lopez befriends and has sex with a handsome, but technically legal, young man next door) and does absolutely nothing with it, and saddles it with wooden performances, poor staging, and a complete lack of conviction. It reaches a nearly operatic level of ineptitude.
When the movie begins, beautiful high school literature teacher Claire Peterson (Lopez) is dealing with the new reality of her life separated from her husband (John Corbett), after she learns he’s been sleeping with a work colleague. Her dweeby son Kevin (Ian Nelson), who suffers from a mysterious allergy that is almost comically ill-defined, is having a hard time with the separation and looking for a father figure, any father figure, to fill that gap. Enter Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman), a 19-year-old kid whose parents recently died in a car accident and who has come to live with his elderly uncle next door. At first he seems like the perfect addition to the neighborhood: he is somebody that Kevin can look up to, taking care of him at school (Noah is still in high school because he missed a lot of time when his parents died and has to finish senior year) and helping boost Kevin’s confidence, while Noah also, with his chiseled abs and aw-shucks demeanor, gives Claire a chance to wantonly ogle at something new.
Of course, things go awry. Swept up in a whirling vortex of passion, Claire and Noah go between the sheets, in a goofily situated sex scene where Lopez is clearly topless but Guzman’s hands are always on her breasts, never revealing too much skin (#freethenipple). Even without the actual nudity, a fair amount of heat is generated from the scene, which will do little to squash rumors that Lopez and Guzman are a real-life couple. It’s just that after this steamy coupling, when the “thriller” aspect of the story should really be kicking into high gear, the movie falls apart completely, descending into rote clichés and high camp before ending in a fiery climax so pedestrian that it very well may put you to sleep. Thrilling, it isn’t.
“The Boy Next Door” aims to be relatable, set in the suburbs and filled with characters that you might encounter in your own life. But Rob Cohen (the first “Fast and the Furious,” “Alex Cross“) directs it like it’s some kind of science fiction movie, with no resemblance to how actual human beings talk and behave. This is a movie where a high school bully references Turner Classic Movies to put a kid down, and where Noah hands Claire a “first edition” of “The Iliad,” a book that was first published thousands of years ago in ancient Greece and probably didn’t resemble hardcover books as we know them. This is a movie where a well-meaning kid turns out to be a grisly psychopath, complete with a basement dwelling furnished only by his computer (where all of his evil evidence is left on his unprotected desktop) and an endless mosaic of photos of Lopez. (Do young psychopaths really have that kind of flair for the dramatic?)
Even Cohen’s casting choices seem poorly thought out: Kristin Chenoweth plays Lopez’s BFF and the vice principal at her school. This would be okay, since Chenoweth is a fine performer, but she plays the role like she just stepped off the Broadway stage, as shrill, piercing, and irritating as you can imagine. The good-natured best friend characters in these types of movies usually don’t survive long (see also: Leslie Bibb in the recent, similarly abhorrent “No Good Deed“), but this might be the first time you’re actively rooting for their demise. Although by that time the movie has descended into achingly bad camp, so, you know, whatever.
But “The Boy Next Door” is all about Lopez, of course, and it’s good to see a movie built around such a frequently overlooked talent. The problem with the movie, of course, is that her sexiness becomes her defining characteristic, overwhelming just about everything else. She is supposed to be a literature professor, one that all the kids are scared of because she’s such a hard-ass, but most of the time Lopez’s character is seen making meals (for her son, her stud next door neighbor, or her undeserving husband) or photographed leeringly, her nightgown slit showing almost her entire thigh. Maybe Lopez and Cohen meant for the character to be empowering; a woman who wants to be able to do it all and maintain her domestic goddess status. But by having the sole sexual experience that makes her feel alive again turn into a literal nightmare, it robs her of her agency and potency. The entire movie feels like a warning for women of any age: if you act on your desires, you will be punished. And there seems to be no greater punishment than having to watch “The Boy Next Door.” [F]