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Chloe Coleman and Dave Bautista star in My Spy.

Michael Gibson/Courtesy of Elevation

  • My Spy
  • Directed by Peter Segal
  • Written by Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber
  • Starring Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman and Kristen Schaal
  • Classification PG; 99 minutes

rating

2 out of 4 stars

Justice for My Spy. The fish-out-of-water comedy pairs former wrestler Dave Bautista with a nine-year-old girl who blackmails his character, an undercover CIA agent, into dating her mother after her father was murdered by terrorists. (Yes, that’s the premise!) Justice for the movie that was supposed to be one of the big summer action comedies of summer 2019 but was instead pulled from its release in favour of a mid-March dumping. And finally, justice for the movie I always wanted My Spy to be, the one whose trailer made me laugh out loud a year ago, thanks to its cinematic high point: A perfect joke that compares the wedding in Shrek to Bautista dancing to Cardi B in a tapas restaurant.

Unfortunately, the actual incarnation of My Spy is a hot mess, full of more confused character motivations and emotional blackmail than the season finale of Love Is Blind. Seasoned studio comedy veteran Peter Segal (50 First Dates, Anger Management, Get Smart) directs his movie straight into the uncanny valley, with his lunk-headed star, so great in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, delivering wordy one-liners that give the effect that Bautista is learning English on Duolingo. While Segal’s Adam Sandler films have always looked lush and luminous, the director has lost his cinematic edge here: scrunching his mismatched co-stars into flat, hideous two-shots that make the least of what should be a showcase of physical comedy and warmth. This is a painfully dashed off and generic family spy comedy, despite an amazing performance from Bautista’s pint-sized co-star, played by Chloe Coleman of Big Little Lies.

New movies this weekend, including spare and powerful First Cow, heartbreaking Red Snow and Netflix thriller Lost Girls

My Spy’s plot, which follows the numbers of any typical buddy cop premise, sees Bautista as “JJ,” a grizzled war veteran with a traumatic past who likes to go rogue in the field. As punishment for an impulsive shoot-’em-up in the movie’s sloppily constructed opening sequence, he’s forced to team up with an unlikely partner (a googly-eyed and very annoying Kristen Schaal; like many directors, Segal doesn’t know how to use her) to simply observe Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), a vulnerable single mom whose late husband was killed by her nefarious ex-brother-in-law with a tenuous connection to a nuclear detonator on a hard drive. (Don’t expect a lot from this subplot as My Spy devotes 10 minutes to the stakes of world terrorism and what feels like hours to JJ learning how to ice skate.)

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Bautista plays JJ, a grizzled war veteran with a traumatic past who likes to go rogue in the field.

Michael Gibson/Courtesy of Elevation

JJ’s track and report mission, set mostly on a floor of an unsuspecting Chicago apartment complex, is so easy, a nine-year-old girl could do it. But what no one expects is an actual nine-year-old girl to find his surveillance station down the hall and realize that the CIA is tailing her mom. Sensing the opportunity for a new playmate and a prospective father (hers was murdered by terrorists, remember?), Sophie blackmails JJ into spending all of his free time accompanying her on various play dates and teaching her the tricks of the spy trade, until he has no choice but to date her mom, therefore replacing her deceased father with a cool new model, one with shrapnel in his limbs and ugly back tattoos. Like the total Shrek that he is, JJ submits to the neglected girl and softens up, becoming a better man in the process.

My Spy has some pleasant attributes: solid casting, jokes (not even Shrek-related!) that illicit mild guffaws and a premise that makes one long for the heyday of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, it’s tonally all over the place, unclear if it wants to be the kind of hardcore R-rated action comedy Paul Feig excels at (Spy), a mainstream vehicle for Bautista’s physical everyman persona (I-Spy), or a simpering family film full of gadgets (Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over). By trying to have it every way imaginable, it splinters the psyche of poor Sophie, who cries after being bullied by her classmates, then makes fun of Bautista’s steroid use with the harshness of a mean blogger waiting on a freelance cheque. And the less we say about the two egregiously outdated homosexual neighbours next door, the better. (Fine, they give JJ a Queer Eye makeover that involves a scarf, okay?)

We need more studio comedies that give starring roles to precocious mixed race girls who get to be weird, ambitious and unlikable, as well as sweet, vulnerable and smart. Coleman brilliantly delivers dialogue only two albino male screenwriters in their forties could write (brothers Jon and Erich Hoeber previously penned Battleship and The Meg), yet I’m still confused what would elevate My Spy into a classic, a movie that often feels marred by a director and a producer/star who don’t seem emotionally invested at all in they’re making.

Sophie’s incredulous character arc is part Little Orphan Annie, part Tracy Flick, even when acting against what might as well be a tennis ball on a stick they’ll VFX in later. It’s unfortunate when you think of what My Spy could’ve been if helmed by another former wrestler-turned-performer. Instead of The Rock, Bautista’s like an actual rock. Justice for My Spy.

My Spy opens March 13

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