Call the Lifetime Network and tell them one of their made-for-cable woman-in-distress movies has escaped to the big screen, where it definitely doesn’t belong despite being sexed up with more explicit titillation than usual in TV fare. Rob Cohen’s “The Boy Next Door” is an unintentionally funny resurrection of the “Fatal Attraction” template, but it actually bears a closer resemblance to “Fear,” James Foley’s 1996 pseudo-thriller in which Mark Wahlberg, then just beginning his big-screen career, played a handsome young man who became dangerously obsessed with a sweet high-school student played by none other than Reese Witherspoon, whose resume was also pretty thin at the time.
The Wahlberg role is assumed here by Ryan Guzman, whose claim to fame is that he appeared in a couple of the “Step Up” dance movies, but his character of Noah Sandborn gets involved not with a young girl like Witherspoon, but with pretty high school teacher Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez), who lives next door with her asthmatic son Kevin (Ian Nelson) after tossing out her unfaithful husband Garrett (John Corbett). Noah, whose parents recently died (under suspicious circumstances, it will turn out), has moved in to help his ailing uncle, and quickly proves a helpful fellow to the Petersons as well, befriending Kevin and fixing Claire’s malfunctioning garage door. He’s also interested in Claire’s literature course on “classics,” which will center on Homer’s “Iliad.” (A side note here: one of the script’s most inane aspects is its treatment of the Homeric work. Not only is the supposedly AP class Claire is offering on the Greek poem pitched at pretty much a kindergarten level, but the scene in which Noah presents her with the gift of a tattered old English schoolboy translation of it—a book that she enthuses over as a “first edition”—is uproarious to anyone who knows about such things.) No wonder Noah’s soon being treated as a member of the reduced Peterson family, often eating with Claire and Kevin as a sort of older son/brother by proxy.
Matters change one night, however, when Claire comes home depressed from a bad date arranged by her closest friend Vicky (Kristin Chenoweth), the vice-principal at her school, and has a sultry session with Noah. Afterwards she regrets the lapse and refuses to continue their relationship, but Noah abruptly turns psychotically possessive, especially after Claire inches closer to getting back together with Garrett: he does his best to turn Kevin against his father, and threatens to reveal their night together to the school. He also becomes violent, brutalizing the bully (Adam Hicks) who’s been tormenting Kevin (and getting expelled for it), disabling the brakes on Garrett’s car to cause a crash (leading to a high-speed near-disaster on a mountainous stretch of road), and targeting Vicky when she abets Claire’s efforts to end Noah’s threats. The utterly ludicrous denouement finds Claire, Garrett and Kevin all captives of the maniacal young man.
Virtually all of “The Boy Next Door” is, in fact ridiculous, predicated as it is on the stupidity of Claire, whom we’re meant to find sympathetic but who comes across as dumb as a box of rocks. And Lopez’s performance is terrible. Her attempts to look frazzled and fearful are strictly amateur-night, and she, Cohen and cinematographer David McFarland expend a great deal of effort posing her so that she looks great and exposes just enough skin to earn an R rating without threatening it. But the movie can’t be charged with sexism: it treats Guzman in much the same way, offering female viewers as much, if not more, to ogle in terms of undressed shots. He just about matches Lopez in terms of acting ability, too—which is to say that his frenzied episodes are so over-the top that they might bring out a bout of the giggles. The remainder of the cast don’t come off very well, either, with Corbett pretty much sleepwalking his way through the picture and Nelson overdoing the puppy-dog bit, especially when Noah helps Kevin with his dating. The worst used, though, is Chenoweth, who’s not only encouraged to play shrilly to the rafters but has to endure an embarrassing victimization sequence toward the close.
Veteran Cohen, best known for the first “Fast and Furious” movie, does what he can with the script’s myriad idiocies, and he and his behind-the-camera colleagues give the movie a professional look that belies its tiny budget ($4 million), which it’s likely to recoup in a single weekend even if the opening is weak. But all their work is unavailing: “The Boy Next Door” remains a bottom-of-the-barrel endangered woman thriller that even executives over at Lifetime might have dismissed as too hackneyed to be aired.