Jim Hemphill (The Trouble with the Truth) Talks Rob Cohen’s The Boy Next Door

In which a devoted fan of erotic thrillers is frustrated to find that a movie with a very promising premise is turned into a boring, inoffensive mess.

It will probably come as no surprise to most people reading this that The Boy Next Door is a terrible movie, but it did to me. As both an eternal optimist and a die-hard erotic thriller enthusiast I walked into director Rob Cohen’s latest with pretty high hopes, if not expectations. Those hopes lasted for about five minutes, by which point it became painfully clear that neither Cohen nor anyone else involved with the movie had the slightest understanding of the tradition they were working in — and they proved it over and over again for 86 more minutes. This is a movie so devoid of any of the amusements that its premise and marketing promise that I found myself profoundly depressed by the end of it. This isn’t the kind of bad movie that you can have fun with or laugh at — it’s the kind of bad movie that makes you want to stop going to the movies.

I was so hopeful about The Boy Next Door because I love erotic thrillers — the big-budget studio ones like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, the ’80s and ’90s Roger Corman opuses like Stripped to Kill and Naked Obsession, and most of all, flicks like Body of Evidence, Jade and Killing Me Softly that ramp up the melodrama and baroque visuals to near-surrealistic levels. I like Lifetime’s bastardizations of erotic thrillers, the “Woman in Jeopardy” movies, and I even kind of enjoyed Obsessed, a PG-13 (!) erotic thriller. My favorite movie of last year was Gone Girl, because it was the first film to fuse the low pleasures of the erotic thriller with a serious Bergmanesque dissection of marriage, but I also love Blown Away with Corey Haim and Nicole Eggert. The bar for what I find entertaining in a movie like this is pretty low — I just enjoy the formula, even when it’s badly done (sometimes especially when it’s badly done).

Based on the trailers, I thought The Boy Next Door was tailor-made for me: sexy schoolteacher sleeps with her young student, then comes to regret it when the student becomes obsessed and tries to ruin her life. What’s not to like? Especially when you throw in Jennifer Lopez as the teacher, make it R-rated (no Obsessed-style sanitization here, I presumed), and put the material in the hands of Cohen, a director who has made a couple films I flat-out loved (A Small Circle of Friends and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story).

I don’t know if Cohen is to blame for the mess that is The Boy Next Door, or if the fault lies with producer Jason Blum, or screenwriter Barbara Curry, or producer-star Lopez, or a whole phalanx of unseen, anonymous studio executives responsible for a whole slew of bad choices — all I know is that a movie is the product of the decisions its creators make, and there were very few correct choices made on this one.

Right from the beginning, the makers of The Boy Next Door inexplicably dispense with the most promising aspect of their premise by revealing that the student who has the affair with his teacher is of legal age — some rather unconvincing exposition informs us that he’s around 20 years old but still in high school. This not only drains the movie of a lot of its illicit energy, but lowers the dramatic stakes to the point that they’re barely existent — if Lopez’s character was sleeping with an underage student, there’d be some real suspense when he threatens to expose the affair. He’s not even J.Lo’s student at the point when she sleeps with him, so there’s almost no sense of sin to their dalliance. Lopez is separated from her cheating husband (John Corbett), so where exactly is the drama in her having a fling with a hot young guy? Am I missing something here?

Of course, you don’t need drama if you have sex appeal, but here too, The Boy Next Door botches things completely. Considering that the sex scene between Lopez and Ryan Guzman (a fun actor who deserves better) is the incident that drives the whole rest of the movie, one might expect something more from it than a couple shots of the student fingering J.Lo’s body double. Alas, that would be to expect too much — the only suspense I found in the entire movie came from sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to see how skillfully the camera operators would adhere to the no-nudity clause in Lopez’s contract. Though the tabloids have rumored that Lopez and Guzman are an item in real life, they have zero chemistry on screen — the script never even begins to explain why they’re drawn to each other, and the actors don’t compensate for the absence of motivation in the screenplay. They don’t get any help from Cohen, either — the sex is staged with all the eroticism of a documentary on fracking.

After this point, the movie hits the standard erotic thriller beats without having done the perfunctory legwork to make those beats mean anything. The basic thematic thrust of a movie like Fatal Attraction and other films like it is for the protagonist to realize what they have risked throwing away by having an affair; The Boy Next Door follows this template to a degree, but forgets to give Lopez’s character anything to lose. She’s already divorcing her husband, she can’t go to jail since Guzman is an adult, and you never really care about her losing her job, partly because J.Lo playing a teacher of classical literature is even less convincing than Mark Wahlberg as a mathematician in The Happening.

How did this get so screwed up? It’s the easiest genre in the world to make work — combine domestic melodrama, explicit sex and steadily escalating violence and you’ve got wall-to-wall entertainment. I have never in my life seen a thriller less thrilling than The Boy Next Door, a movie so afraid of upsetting its audience that it sands down every rough edge until the whole movie is as smooth and inoffensive as an episode of Dancing with the Stars. The tension never escalates; one reviewer described the film as Fatal Attraction without the rabbit, and herein lies one of the many problems. You need the rabbit for this premise to work, you need explicit sex, and you need two valid love interests for the protagonist, plus a whole lot of other things that are basic but don’t seem to have occurred to the makers of The Boy Next Door. They give us a heroine who has no personality whatsoever — didn’t they learn anything from the success of Gone Girl or Basic Instinct? Audiences don’t need their characters to be likable, they just need them to be interesting — and on that score, The Boy Next Door makes Obsessed look like Chekov.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.