1987's "Fatal Attraction," 1996's "Fear," and a whole lineage of similarly plotted "...From Hell" thrillers welcome a new descendant with "The Boy Next Door," producer Jason Blum's latest micro-budget effort from genre-centric Blumhouse Productions. While director Rob Cohen (2012's "Alex Cross
") ensures this is a technically slick affair, he and screenwriter Barbara Curry disappoint with their just-enough approach to a hackneyed, cliché-heavy plot. Every time it looks like the picture might be branching out, daring to move in an unexpected direction or delve deeper into the characters' psyches and the agonizing situations they've found themselves in, it instead takes the safe route into surface-ready convention.
Recently separated from unfaithful husband Garrett (John Corbett), high school English teacher Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez) has begun to take the first steps toward moving on from her shattered marriage. When her hunky new neighbor, 19-year-old Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman), comes to stay with his ailing uncle, she is happy to see her teenage son, Kevin (Ian Nelson), meet a new friend. Noah is handy around the house and a lover of the classic poetry she teaches. He seems like an upstanding young man and is mature beyond his years, which probably makes it easier for her to be seduced by him. It is a one-night indiscretion Claire immediately regrets, but Noah lets it be known that he's not about to let her go. Before she knows it, everything she holds dearher son, her profession, her entire lifeis put into dire jeopardy.
While the general premise is shopworn, "The Boy Next Door" might have displayed a provocative edginess had Noah been rewritten as an underage teenager, rather than a man of almost 20 who just so happens to be finishing up high school. Because he is not, in fact, a minor, and Claire's sexual encounter with him occurred before she knew he would be taking her class, it undermines the urgency and shame she feels after the fact. Before Noah reveals that he is completely unhinged, the viewer is left to question why Claire is so off-the-charts horrified by what she has done. The increasingly alarming events that transpire could have been solved early if Claire had owned up to what happened and maturely gotten the authorities involved, but these are not things she ever considers. When Noah's violent rage leads to the destruction of school property, the assault of the vice principal, and the fracturing of a student's skull, it is outrageous that this legal adult is not arrested on the spot. Time after time, the film strains one's suspension of disbelief. Just because the project itself is purposefully B-grade doesn't mean the script couldn't have tackled said story with a modicum of intelligence.
Her acting talent superseded by her superstar status as a singer-dancer-entrepreneur, Jennifer Lopez (2012's "What to Expect When You're Expecting
") does not often get the film roles she deserves or the credit she should receive. Before she was nicknamed "J.Lo" and "Jenny from the Block," Lopez impressed first and foremost as an actress, doing exceptional work in motion pictures as varied as 1997's "Blood and Wine" and "U-Turn," 1998's "Out of Sight," and 2000's "The Cell
." Considering how frequently her character in "The Boy Next Door" makes the wrong decisionyes, she even drops her weapon after striking her target with a single piddling blowLopez is somehow able to retain her sympathetic dignity. Save for one overplayed moment in the opening scene, her performance is emotionally attentive and vital.
As Noah, Ryan Guzman (2014's "Step Up: All In
") proves that there is far more to him than great biceps and a handsome face, turning on the mega-watt charm one minute, and transforming into a hateful, skeevy creep the next. Disappointingly, there is no attempt to understand Noah's point of view. Once the switch has been flipped, he is an all-out monster whose obsession does not stem from love, but from his lust for control. This little detail could have potentially made all the difference, as a man who loses himself over pains of the heart may have brought thought-provoking complexity to an otherwise paint-by-numbers narrative. Director Cohen and scribe Curry aren't interested in who Noah is, thoughyet another missed chance to lift the material above stock-thriller status. Classing up her scenes as Claire's best friend and work colleague, Vicky, Kristin Chenoweth (2013's "Family Weekend
") digs into the kind of dramatic part she isn't frequently asked to play; her brutal one-on-one confrontation with Noah as he sets out to verbally tear her down is riveting to watch.
If "The Boy Next Door" is too absurd to be crediblea shame, since it might have been a ripe opportunity to explore the real-world threat of personal stalkersdirector Rob Cohen deserves credit for recognizing what kind of movie he's making and at least delivering upon those lowly aspirations. Dialogue drifts into amusingly campy double-entendres "It got pretty wet here," Noah tells Garrett, decidedly not referring just to the previous night's stormwhile Claire's convenient discovery of a bevy of devious computer files in Noah's fanatical basement lair is worthy of a good chuckle. The third act rises admirably in tension, but trite elements such as a cheap cat scare and the squandering of a 911 call are worthy of groans at precise times when the viewer should be on the edge of his or her seat. The abruptness with which the film segues to its end credits without a proper wrap-up to Claire's life-changing journey is the final damning evidence that the people on the screen have been nothing more than manipulated pawns in a trite script devoid of creativity. Silly, diverting and indefensibly dumb, "The Boy Next Door" turns off its brain early, and requires that audiences follow suit.