My Spy is one of those unfortunate films that you can clearly see a better movie inside as opposed to the one unfolding before your eyes. Filled with talented and likable stars I soon found my dislike turn to pity, both for myself and for them. It is a family film but made without regard for anyone one specific person.
Peter Segal is a journeyman director who has made some truly funny films as well as some sweet ones. To his credit, there are some genuine laughs and at times I found my cold heart melting just a little. But the moment would pass and I was left wondering if maybe I had imagined the humor.
In some ways, the movie is almost Zen in its lackadaisical tone. My Spy has a way of going from one scene to the next with little to no real urgency. The movie isn’t rushing along or even unfolding, it is merely idle.
JJ (Dave Bautista) is now an ex-special forces operative, now a CIA agent. After botching a reconnaissance mission, he is reassigned with a new partner. She is the data analyst and a massive fan of JJ’s work Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). The two are assigned to stake out and survey Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her nine-year-old daughter Sophie (Chole Coleman).
If this sounds familiar to you it’s because the story is as old as the Grampian hills, if not older. It goes all the way back to the old serial days where the stoic square-jawed tough guy was saddled with a high pitched eager optimistic young sidekick. But more than likely it probably rings a bell because you’ve seen Cop and a Half or Kindergarten Cop.
While watching My Spy I couldn’t help thinking of similar better films. This is partly because the story is so rote but more because the writers, Jon and Erich Hoeber insist on reminding us of the other films with either clever little nods or overt meta-references. It wouldn’t be so bad but at one point towards the end My Spy cribs from Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Bobbi even says at one point, “Whoa this all seems weirdly familiar. Seriously all we’re missing are nazis.” The line lands with a thud despite Schaal’s talent. I’ll admit there was a brief moment in which I was a bit worried that with ten minutes left to go, that they would actually introduce nazis because My Spy is that big of a mess.
All of this is a low-down dirty shame because Bautista is a wonderful charming presence and a fine actor. But Segal and the script seem baffled as to what to do with JJ. Bautista, who I have no doubt, worked hard, seems lost as to what to do. He vacillates between being menacing and a big softy. This is, of course, the joke, but it’s not funny without some kind of context.
For starters there’s a subplot involving a criminal organization run by Victor Marquez (Greg Byrk), his brother was Sophie’s dad. JJ and Bobbi are told to watch Sophie and Kate in case Victor meets with them or comes after them. Sophie stumbles onto their operation, films them, and proceeds to blackmail JJ into being her friend. The gag is that the big bad tough guy and the nerdy CIA tech are outwitted by a little girl. The joke is funny once-but that’s the whole movie. Not to mention that Segal periodically switches between JJ and Sophie to Victor, but only in the beginning. For large swaths of the movie, the entire subplot is dropped as we focus on JJ and Sophie and the eventual courtship of JJ and Kate.
To some extent this is fine. Chole Coleman plays Sophie with a brash arrogance that is clearly just a front for the roiling insecurities underneath the surface. Coleman does a wonderful job and Bautista is a generous performer and they play off each other nicely. The bond between them grows from begrudging companionship to genuine friendship, to a possible father figure.
About halfway through the movie, Chole demands to be trained as a spy. JJ reluctantly agrees and begins to set out tasks for her to complete. Sophie excels at every one of them so much so that the training seems moot and redundant. By doing this the script makes these scenes pointless, cute, but not cute enough to justify spending time on it.
Perhaps it would have worked if Segal would have understood when to cut away. At the beginning of the training sequence, we see JJ and Sophie sitting down at the lie detector, as he lays out the purpose and the rules of the exercise. But before they start, he cuts away to JJ and Sophie outside starting a different exercise.
Now, it would make sense to cut back or to cut away to another exercise, shortly after JJ tells Sophie the purpose of the new exercise. Except Segal stays with the scene as it plays out to the end of its natural conclusion. Then cuts back to the lie detector scene which I had all but forgotten about.
I mention this because this is part of a glaring problem with the film. The cuts don’t make any logical, emotional, or cinematic sense. Though there are a few rare exceptions, such as using fireworks as a stand-in for a stereotypical fireball explosion, to help Sophie practice the cool walk away. But those scenes are fleeting and only make the rest of the film feel even more disjointed.
Despite the charisma of the actors, it’s the fundamentals like this that make the movie so jarring. The miracle of My Spy is how even with a muddled script and conception, that there were still times that I laughed. While on an impromptu date with Kate, Bobbi calls JJ to ask him what is going on. He excuses himself, goes to the bathroom, and answers Bobbi’s call.
It’s then that JJ realizes Bobbi, who has put a camera all over the apartment, also put a camera inside the bathroom. “Did you put a camera in the bathroom? What kind of pervert puts a camera in the bathroom?” “The same genius pervert who knows that people go into the bathroom to have secret conversations on their phone.”
Moments like these make me realize how close My Spy came to being a clever and sweet movie with a hint of satire. But the scenes feel as if they come from a different movie. A movie that I wish I was watching.
It’s positively galling because Bautista and Coleman are sweet together. Even JJ’s courtship of Kate, Sophie’s mother, was gentle and surprising despite feeling as if it was shoved into the movie because of a studio note. While out on a date JJ goes onto the dance floor and begins to partake in that tried and played joke of “look how bad at dancing I am”. But I won’t lie, I kind of liked it.
JJ is a horrible dancer but he wasn’t comically bad. He was bad in a way that I believe that’s how Bautista dances, like a fifty-year-old man who has no clue of the latest craze and is trying to impress a woman. It’s not hilarious but it rings true in an odd sort of way.
Eventually, the bad guy plunges to his death off the side of a cliff at the end of an airport runway, the good guys walk away from a massive explosion in slow motion, and all is forgiven. Though I’m not so sure how forgiving I can be. My Spy is a lead brick of a movie. As charming as the cast is, there’s only so much anyone can do.