What to Watch Verdict
Charming performances aren't quite enough to save this movie from a scattershot screenplay.
Every actor is manages to make a comedic meal of the material
Said material is pretty mediocre
Chloe Coleman feels perfunctory in her own movie
How are we still making movies like My Spy? It has to be some kind of rite of passage for tough-guy actors to be cast in a buddy comedy opposite a child, right? Is there something programmed deep into the moviegoing American psyche that clamors for an action star to be a fish out of water in the mundanity of raising children? We keep coming to this well again and again with our Pacifiers and our Tooth Fairies that you would think the formula might be stale by now, though it seems we can’t quite get enough of putting muscle men in situations where those muscles are ironically not useful. Though, to be fair to Dave Bautista, he’s become known as more of a comedy actor in his post-wrestling career, so casting him in a film like My Spy isn’t that big of a leap. It just makes you wish My Spy were up to the challenge of meeting his talents.
Bautista plays JJ, an ex-Special Forces soldier trying his hand at being a secret agent with the CIA only to find that he isn’t exactly the best at espionage that requires bad guys to remain alive and unexploded. Given one last chance by his boss (Ken Jeong), JJ is teamed up with techie Bobbi (Kristen Schaal) to monitor the sister-in-law, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and niece, Sophie (Chloe Coleman), of their current terrorist target, just in case said terrorist decides to make contact. Circumstances find JJ and Bobbi discovered by Sophie, who proves to be too clever by half for a nine-year-old and extorts JJ into taking her to an ice skating party hosted by kids at her new school.
From there you probably have a good idea of the general beats this thing follows. Sophie learns some neat spy tricks and gains the confidence to make new friends. JJ discovers the value of family, which in turn makes him a better spy somehow. It’s all formulaic and pat, but when the film shines, it’s due to smart casting choices and the actors' permitted freedom to extemporize. Bautista fits neatly into the straight man role but also delivers some great lines that showcase his character’s desperation to turn to violence as a constant first resort. Schaal is similarly great as a needy, nerdy tech wizard who is perpetually jealous of the attention JJ pays to a child.
The comic chemistry between Bautista and Schaal is responsible for some of the film’s funniest moments, which skew surprisingly mature and add an endearing shock value to a film in danger of being bland. This is especially true for the film’s third act, which leans into full self-awareness of its action movie tropes and makes some amusing commentary on the absurdity of what we’re used to seeing on screen.
But not all elements of My Spy are firing on all cylinders. Coleman does a good job at playing a preternaturally intelligent scamp, but Sophie is such an underwritten character, motivated more by the situations she needs to put JJ into for comedic effect than by any consistent or intrinsic goal. She’s achieved her objective of making friends by the end of the first act, so nothing really compels her further into JJ’s orbit beyond the contrivances that force the film into a semblance of a plot.
In fact, much of the second act feels like padding for time, plowing forward with a forced romantic subplot and presenting a lot of jokes that feel dated from a draft of the screenplay written at least ten years ago. The biggest offenders for these are a gay couple who lives down the hall from Sophie, and their whole gimmick is that one of them (Noah Danby) only speaks in grunts so that the other (Devere Rogers) can be enough of a Will & Grace cliché for the both of them. Remember kids, it’s 2003, so effeminate men are really, really funny.
Though My Spy is surprisingly funny at points, the whole experience feels a bit undercooked. It would not shock me to learn that this screenplay went through multiple treatments over a long period of time, as it stumbles between being a family-friendly romp, an adolescent gross-out film, and a send-up of spy movie tropes. In the process, it leaves character arcs lopsided, contrived, and occasionally unresolved. The only things that keep this film afloat are inconsistently funny situations with occasionally funny dialogue delivered by consistently funny actors. It’s just a shame that those pieces don’t quite add up to a whole movie.
If you think that might be your jam, you can currently stream the film on Prime Video.
Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.
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