No good adulterous affair goes unpunished in Hollywood movies. The latest proof is J.Lo starrer “The Boy Next Door,” a gender-reversing B-movie spin on “Fatal Attraction” that sets suburban family values against that one night of misguided, irresistible passion. An economically told popcorn pic built from horror-movie tropes, the film stars Jennifer Lopez and Ryan Guzman as, respectively, the world’s most glamorous high school teacher and its oldest 19-year-old.
As counterprogramming to awards-focused prestige titles, it offers January moviegoers some guilty-pleasure thrills and laughs, while falling way short of its potential on both the dramatic and the camp fronts. Still, given the star power and the lurid material, the wide release is sure to score at the box office.
Set in an unidentified section of Southern California, the movie finds literature teacher Claire Peterson (Lopez) separated from her husband for almost a year but not quite ready to move on, however much her best friend/sassy vice principal (Kristin Chenoweth) urges her to do so. Played with typical nice-guy earnestness by John Corbett, repentant cheating husband Garrett is eager for a second chance with Claire. Soon enough, somebody else wants a second chance with her too — but he’s not asking.
Before he reveals his predatory stripes, Noah (Guzman, of the series “Pretty Little Liars” and the “Step Up” franchise) arrives on the scene as a fix-it hero of a new neighbor, offering such incontestable wisdom as “It’s the clutch.” Nobody (other than the audience) pays much attention to the unlikely high-school senior’s murmured references to dead parents and an accident.
Transferring his know-how from the driveway to the bedroom, Noah gives Claire a night to remember. Her quickness, the morning after, to label their steamy get-together as a mistake proves a major mistake in itself when dealing with Noah, who invests a whole lotta menace in the supposed compliment, “A woman like you should be cherished.” Have more threatening words ever been spoken?
Her instant guilt coupled with his instant wacko routine deprives the film of any real sense of naughty indulgence, not to mention nuance. But director Rob Cohen avoids sex-scene cliches and gives the encounter, and much of what follows, energy. Once Claire distances herself, it’s “game on” for studly and strategic Noah, whose first step is to take Claire’s good-natured but timid teenage son, Kevin (well played by Ian Nelson), under his wing and poison him against his father.
Noah quickly turns into a one-note character — the note being “pathological.” In Lopez’s rootable portrayal, Claire is far more complex: conflicted about her marriage, capable of walking out on a disastrous blind date and alive to the possibilities that her handsome young neighbor initially represents, especially when viewed late at night across their rain-streaked bedroom windows.
The screenplay by prosecutor-turned-screenwriter Barbara Curry lays out some heavy-handed background to explain Noah’s derangements and fixations, but everything gives way to full-tilt lunacy, leading to an inevitable showdown complete with don’t-go-into-the-basement suspense, flat-out torture and implausible heroics.
Though the script settles into ordinary thriller territory way too soon, Cohen (“The Fast and the Furious,” “Alex Cross”) doesn’t belabor things, delivering a concise and good-looking genre piece and making the most of a microbudget ($4 million). In the earthy interiors of Claire’s home, Charles Varga’s production design accentuates her maternal warmth. The excellent score by Rand Edelman and Nathan Barr ratchets up the dread.
If only that high-tension music played against less obvious action and dialogue. Everything is signaled clearly in “Boy”: A gun appears early in the story, as does a kitchen knife, pointing to dire circumstances ahead. But at least as disappointing as the film’s predictability is the way the cheesy, giddy double entendres of its early scenes give way, all too readily, to the business of protecting professional reputations and the sanctity of the nuclear family — not half as much fun.