Two out of four stars

Whatever your opinion of Jennifer Lopez as a person and/or performer, you’ve got to give her credit. She’s found success (“success” meaning considerable financial gain, not artistic triumph) in three different mediums (film, TV and music) and is about conquer a fourth (a highly lucrative series of stage shows in Las Vegas). Her tumultuous romantic life has been regular fodder for the tabloids and her reputation as a spoiled diva is that of legend. She is to entertainment what McDonald’s is to fine dining.

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Over the past two decades Lopez has starred in about 30 movies and exactly two of them (“The Cell” and “Out of Sight”) are recommendable and for the first half hour, “The Boy Next Door” shows signs of, if not greatness, at least being an interesting watch.

Taking place in an unspecified California city, Lopez stars as Claire, a high school English teacher who is unsure whether or not she’ll file for divorce and rid herself of her cheating husband (John Corbett). She vacillates because her teen son Kevin (Ian Nelson) is good at playing the peacemaker for his parents and Claire is petrified with the idea of re-entering the dating scene.

The future of Claire’s marriage is put in limbo with the arrival of Noah (Ryan Guzman), a young man who recently lost both of his parents and has moved in with an ailing elderly relative living next door. Ripped with smoldering, model-level handsomeness, Noah is genial and friendly and almost too eager to please. His considerable acumen at home and auto repair quickly makes him a fixture in Claire and Kevin’s lives and its clear Claire considers Noah to be major eye-candy.

Quick on the uptake, Noah catches Claire gazing at him through a window while undressing and decides to shift his approach from charming to seductive. Flattered by Noah’s gushing compliments and her own recent lack of physical male contact, Claire soon drops her guard and her panties and in the aftermath of the cold morning, she immediately regrets her impulsive decision.

To her credit, first time screenwriter Barbara Curry has handled the narrative quite well up to this point. While not able to legally drink, the 20-year-old Noah is still a full-fledged adult and his age removes any possible “sex-with-a-minor” controversies while Claire’s hesitance and strong back peddling after the fact eliminates any “cougar” connotations. Director Rob Cohen (“The Fast and the Furious,” “Alex Cross”) also deserves credit for his tasteful, yet steamy framing of the sex scene and he pushes the limits of the film’s “R” rating up to but never past the breaking point.

What starts out as a taut erotic thriller turns on a dime and becomes a rote, B-grade stalker flick. The confident, affable and suave Noah becomes a monster; a spurned lover who rather than reverting back to his initial laid-back charm does everything he can to drive Clair away even further. He exploits his big brother relationship with Kevin and threatens to expose Claire with an escalating series of psychopathic acts.

Most notable for his roles in two installments of the “Step-up” franchise, Guzman displays a wide range of emotions and even when Noah is at his worst, Guzman never goes over the top. It’s just a pity that what he’s given to work with is so predictable and low-rung. As for Lopez, she operates within a small dramatic range and rarely displays the level of fear and paranoia a character like as this would exhibit in such trying circumstances.

Providing some much needed comic relief and sturdy backbone is Kristin Chenoweth as Claire’s vice-principal and best friend who plays the devil’s advocate regarding both Noah and the husband. Chenoweth is equally adept at comedy and drama which makes Lopez’s thespian shortcomings all the more glaring.

In a move that makes no commercial sense, Curry feeds both Chenoweth and Guzman dialogue containing multiple, highly offensive euphemisms for female anatomy that adds nothing to the story and only serves as a certain turn-off to the target “date night” and over-30 female demographic. While not offensive as such, the final two scenes are both highly implausible and laughingly overblown yet sadly exactly what we’ve come to expect from January releases. (Universal)

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