In the first few minutes of the new David Bautista film, “My Spy,” there are references to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Iron Man 2,” and “Notting Hill.” There are also a bunch of jokes based on diegetic needle drops (okay, it’s the same joke, but it’s done multiple times). As becomes clear, these are signs of a film that is trying too hard, that is pushing too much to generate laughs. This is a tendency from which director Peter Segal’s “My Spy” never fully overcomes, and that is regrettable – whenever the movie just lets things happen, just relies on the chemistry between Bautista and his young co-star, Chloe Coleman, it is a charming, enjoyable, entry into the “Big strong guy has to do movie with a cute kid” genre.
Of course, to get to the point where that nice and easy bit happens, one has to utterly jettison any notion of the film’s Maguffin. This has Bautista as a terrible spy, JJ, given one last chance to remain in the CIA by doing surveillance on the widow, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and daughter, Sophie (Coleman), of a bad guy whose brother, also a bad guy but still alive, is searching for plans to make a nuclear bomb. There is no intelligence whatsoever that this baddie is going to come for Kate and Sophie, which is why JJ and Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), his tech partner for the case, are given the assignment. Guess what happens for the film’s climax?
When “My Spy” forgets all that silliness and it’s absolute inability to handle an action sequence (the shaky cam is awful; the cuts and shots aren’t great, even the ones that just involved JJ falling during ice skating; and the CG explosions don’t work), it’s just a charming little movie about this big lug who has trouble connecting to others, but learns to do so via a friendship with a lonely, precocious, 10-year-old. Sophie working out that JJ and Bobbi are spies is utterly daft (because it ties back into the larger plot and, again, that plot doesn’t work), but her blackmailing JJ into taking her ice skating when her mother can’t more than makes up for it. Sophie repeatedly going back to the blackmail well before the friendship truly forms is great, as are her attempts to setup JJ and Kate.
Even the screenplay from Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber’s makes the spy stuff feel de rigueur. The whole thing is actually foolish enough that on more than one occasion Schaal’s Bobbi has to call it out as such. In those moments she is nearly a stand in for the audience, shouting from the top of their lungs to just forget the nuclear weapons and go back to JJ, Kate, and Sophie at the school art fair or to focus longer on how JJ’s attending bring a parent/special friend to school day instantly makes him the object of desire for all the women in the room and the object of envy for the men.
These last are moments that succeed because Bautista is all in on them and they reek of honesty. The bit where JJ fakes a Russian accent to gather intel is terrible. It is played for laughs in a way that suggests “My Spy” doesn’t understand that perhaps nuclear weapons are serious and don’t mesh with this sort child-oriented comedy (and certainly doesn’t mesh as presented) and which, moreover, makes little to no sense in terms of the film’s actual plot (if everyone knows JJ is a terrible spy, and they all do, why exactly is he working undercover at the outset?).
In the end, “My Spy” succeeds more than it fails. It will endlessly please kids and will cause adults to chuckle repeatedly. It is a film which exists well outside the bounds of our reality and yet still is at its best when focusing on real relationships. It even works when that relationship is centered on the unreal, like JJ teaching Sophie spy craft. It is only when it sets that all aside to kill terrorists that, like JJ learning to ice skate, it falls flat on its face.
photo credit: Amazon Studios