A CIA operative is given the job of surveilling a single mother and her young daughter Sophie in their apartment block – but the tween quickly works out what’s going on…
JJ (Dave Bautista) may be ex-Forces with military commendations as long as his bicep circumference, but as a spy he’s on the ropes with his boss (Ken Jeong).
After one screw up too many, involving – gulp – enough missing plutonium to blow up half a city (or was it half blow up a whole city?) he’s now newly demoted from international field operative to its Chicago apartment block equivalent, down to his last chance as he’s sent on grunt-work surveillance with admiring would-be partner Bobbi (Kristen Schaal).
Holed up in a grubby flat, watching a bank of screens all day, he and Bobbi spy on single mum Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her young daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman), in case Kate’s French gangster brother-in-law Victor should make contact.
But savvy 9 year old Sophie – ignored by her classmates most of the time and bullied when they do notice her – quickly realises what’s going on when she discovers one of their hidden cameras.
Filming JJ and Bobbi’s response when she confronts them, she realises she has the perfect way to blackmail JJ into being her friend and companion. First she makes him take her to a class ice skating meet-up then to a sort of “bring a parent or friend” day at school; and it’s inevitable that soon he and Kate are spending time together.
My Spy is good sweet fun – the only stressful moments are worrying if Sophie’s cute dog will eat JJ’s pet fish Blueberry – but it often feels dated and old-fashioned (do we really still need a viral YouTube video of characters dancing badly, which gets a million hits?)
It wouldn’t have surprised me to find out it had been gathering dust on a distributor’s shelf for a decade, with Coleman now about to go to college, though it hasn’t and she isn’t.
What holds it together are the leads’ comic timing and a few belly-laughs amid an air of general amiability.
Bautista is a good performer and a genial presence, his delivery and warmth giving the rather thin material more solidity than it warrants. Schaal provides sterling support, fleshing out Bobbi beyond the confines of the stereotypes she’s been given. Coleman is very good, Sophie’s assertiveness just desperation to assuage her loneliness; she and Bautista work really well together as the brain and brawn in what is initially at least a partnership of circumstance.
It’s very uneven though, with the action comedy bookending a family movie in the middle and an occasional scene set abroad to indicate “thriller”. Unsure what tone it wants to strike, it also throws some romcom into the mix – all we’re missing is JJ trying on 50 different outfits of growing outlandishness when he’s “Queer Eye”‘d by Carlos and Todd who live down the hall.
There are some great laugh-out-loud moments, and it’s fair to say the best of the humour is either joyfully stupid or darkly comic.
The jokes that work best are the ones that thread through the film: JJ’s overly violent suggestions on how to deal with a problem, and Coleman’s ability to amusingly deliver the lines of an adult. Many of the other gags are funny but derivative, relying on movie references that often look chucked in to bulk out the gag ratio.
Bautista is always going to be an entertaining watch when playing that “gauche sweetheart with rough edges trapped inside a tattooed man mountain” persona. He’s an adept comedian, whether delivering lines or prat-falling; his wrestling career means he’s well aware of how a body moves.
Gay couple Carlos (Devere Rogers) and Todd living in the apartment down the hall from Kate and Sophie are stereotypes though I did like the allegedly voluble Todd (Noah Danby in a non-speaking role).
My Spy‘s tonal imbalance may leave adults frustrated but the film’s mixture of clever tween who doesn’t fit in, broad comedy, cute dog and the odd huge explosion means it should work well for a younger age group (I think my 10 year old will love it).
Of course it’s not remotely believable, even in the day-to-day aspects. The creepiness of an apartment full of cameras (everywhere!) is never really resolved as JJ gets close to Sophie and Kate.
And leaving aside the fact that I don’t know any parent who would so easily leave their child with a near-stranger for hours at a time, it also looks as if JJ and Bobbi put a surveillance camera in a smoke alarm. In the real world that would have been smashed to pieces with the handle of a wooden spoon as soon as the alarm went off after someone lightly browned some toast a couple of miles away.
Still, I did like the screenplay’s realism about what lonely kids actually want and need. Sophie isn’t impressed with the usual platitudes adults give her about being herself; JJ understands he needs to step up and make himself look exciting to her classmates so she gets to bask in his reflected glory, and becomes a cool kid at last.
Spoiler: Sophie’s dog does not eat Blueberry. (More big spoilers below!)
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Kate’s brother-in-law Victor fakes his own death, leading to JJ and Bobbi’s boss David Kim closing the case. Kim then fires both of them because he’s found out they’ve befriended the very people they were surveilling.
Victor comes to Kate and Sophie’s apartment, holding them hostage, whacking JJ over the head and retrieving the plans from Sophie’s dog’s collar. Carlos and Todd burst in with homemade hummus and attack Victor and his henchman. JJ thinks they’re here to help until they explain they’re private contractors and have been waiting to steal the plans.
Victor escapes with the plans, and with Sophie as a hostage. Kate and JJ chase after Victor and Sophie to an airfield. Victor ends up being pushed off a cliff in a plane, dying in the crash. Bobbi and JJ are reinstated, and ask to stay in Chicago for a while. JJ and Kate are back together, and Sophie has tons of friends at school.