★ ★ ½
Toss most of director Rob Cohen’s films into a pot, stir them around a bit, and what you end up with is a batch of alpha-male soup with testosterone as the main ingredient. The man behind The Fast and the Furious, XXX, and the depressing serial-killer flop Alex Cross seems more than a little obsessed with aggressive male dominance—and he indulges himself once more in The Boy Next Door.
The average girl might consider it a dream to live next door to a teenage hunk who, if she’s lucky, would attempt to seduce her with his adorable, lopsided smile and pecs-for-days physique. But if that hunk is also a sociopathic stalker and the “girl” is actually a fortysomething high-school teacher and single mom, that dream can devolve into night terrors pretty quickly. So it goes with The Boy Next Door, Jennifer Lopez’s latest starring vehicle, which comes on the heels of her quasi-successful comeback as a judge on the waaay-past-its-prime American Idol. Lopez portrays Claire Peterson, the separated mother of a teenage son named Kevin (sweetly played by Ian Nelson), who is deeply affected by his parents’ split. Claire seems to be incapacitated when it comes to pulling the trigger on her marriage to philandering husband Garrett (John Corbett of Parenthood and Sex and the City), no matter how many times her best friend Vicky (Kristin Chenoweth) reminds her of his cheating ways. Once you suspend your disbelief that anyone would want to cheat on J. Lo (she of the flawless olive skin and enviable, age-defying figure), Lopez (barely) manages to convince us that Claire is feeling old and insecure. She sips wine and cries after her husband talks of revisiting the city of his affair, albeit for business. Now that her defenses are properly down, cue the aforementioned hunk next door. Noah Sandborn, played by relative newcomer Ryan Guzman, is charmingly assertive at first: He coyly tells Claire that she’s sexy, befriends Kevin, and generally kisses up—he’s basically a better looking Eddie Haskell. But Eddie would never do to Mrs. Cleaver what Noah ultimately has in mind for Claire. He recently moved in with his sickly uncle after his own parents died under mysterious circumstances the year before. Upon meeting, it takes approximately 30 seconds for Claire to begin unabashedly gawking at 19-year-old Noah, who quickly capitalizes on this situation.
Director Cohen and screenwriter Barbara Curry (a former trial attorney) seem to have little concern for the glaring double standard here. If the gender roles were reversed, the seduction scenes would be considered exploitative and creepy, and the high-school teacher would be excoriated and then dismissed as nothing more than a pervy, middle-aged guy with zero self-control.
The plot here is so formulaic that one could almost picture Curry filling in the blanks on a standard-issue stalker-movie template: “(Claire) breaks into (Noah’s) house and finds a creepy shrine to her in the (basement).” It’s like Mad Libs for screenwriters.
There are some bright spots to The Boy Next Door. Lopez’s acting has markedly matured since she last played the victim of an obsessed stalker, in 2002’s Enough. While she might be too pretty for the role of Claire, she has an appealing ease about her when she talks to her son, and she can muster a believable level of outrage when she sees her world start to implode.
The best scene in the film is elevated by a cinematic choice that can be considered (almost) inspired. A psychotic Noah is calmly talking to Vicky, who is out of the shot. As he speaks, the camera zooms out so slowly and painstakingly that the viewer will want to cover his or her eyes in order to deal with the tension of what’s about to be revealed; unfortunately, the rest of the movie isn’t able to sustain that level of suspense and intrigue. It’s better to cover the eyes in fear than to not want to look at the screen in the first place.