February 7, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Culture Representation: In this comedy based on the children’s book of a similar title, the racially diverse characters are primarily middle-class in Portland, Oregon.
Culture Clash: The story’s protagonist is a grim pre-teen boy who aspires to be a private detective, but he dislikes school, authority figures and almost everyone around him.
Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to children and other people who want to see a series of antics on screen instead of a compelling and coherent story.
If you’re tired of children’s entertainment that has a sweet-natured and upbeat protagonist, then “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” which is about a pessimistic child who’s a wannabe detective, might be up your alley. However, this comedy film’s flawed and scattered story will test the patience of anyone looking for a realistic and cohesive plot.
The “Timmy Failure” book series (written by Stephan Pastis) began in 2013 with “Timmy Failure: Look What Mistakes Were Made,” so this Disney+ movie adaptation might become a movie series too. If so, the “Timmy Failure” movie series is off to a very questionable start, but there’s a lot of room to improve. “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” was directed by Oscar-winning “Spotlight” screenwriter Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” screenplay with Pastis. “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” is perfect for a streaming service such as Disney+, since it’s doubtful that people would be willing to pay full ticket prices to see a movie about such an unlikable kid.
Timmy Failure is a fifth grader (about 10 or 11 years old) who lives in Portland, Oregon, and is—to put it nicely—very eccentric. He’s an antisocial loner who never smiles, and he has an extreme (and warped) sense of superiority about his intelligence. (He’s not as smart as he thinks he is.) He’s the kind of deliberately negative character who’s much more amusing to watch than to be around in real life. Timmy does a lot of deadpan narration in this film, and he says in the beginning of the story: “I am only concerned with one thing: greatness.”
But in reality, Timmy’s life isn’t so great. He’s barely getting by in school, because he’d prefer to start his own detective agency instead of studying and doing his homework. He has such a disdain for school that he doodles and sketches on test forms instead of filling out the tests with real answers. He also doesn’t think much of other people—his favorite word to describe most people is “problematic”—and his single-minded focus on becoming a private investigator includes a condescending attitude toward police.
Timmy also has a strange prejudice against Russians, whom he automatically suspects of being the perpetrators of any real or perceived crimes that he starts to investigate. His hatred of Russians (he calls them “evil”) seems out of place in a children’s story. Because Tommy’s animosity toward Russians is never explained and certainly never justified, this type of bigotry ultimately isn’t necessary. Imagine if he spouted that kind of hatred toward females or people of a different race. It wouldn’t make it past the editing process of this story.
Timmy’s parents split up years ago, so his bohemian single mother Patty Failure (played by Ophelia Lovibond) isn’t as attentive as she could be, because she’s overwhelmed with working to pay their bills. Timmy’s only “friend” is a 1,500-pound polar bear named Total, who showed up at Timmy’s house one day after the bear was forced out of its home due to global warming. It’s implied in the movie that Total is a figment of Timmy’s imagination, because the bear is seen walking around town, riding in automobiles and going to places where no wild animal of that size would be allowed, and yet people act like it’s perfectly normal.
In his cluttered and messy home, Timmy has set up his one-person “detective agency.” Another sign of his eccentricity is his unwillingness to use 21st-century or computerized resources in his work. His business cards are hand-written. He doesn’t seem to use the Internet. And to record interviews, he uses an old audiocassette recorder that’s held together by tape.
Another one of Timmy’s quirks his that he likes to wear a red scarf as often as possible. He also has this response whenever someone gets angry at something he did: “Normal is for normal people.” And whenever something disastrous happens because of one of his inevitable bad decisions, he says, “Mistakes were made.”
According to Timmy, the polar bear Total is supposed to be a partner in the detective agency, but the polar bear doesn’t do much in this movie except wander around town by itself and show up at infrequent, random moments when Timmy is around. Timmy transports himself by a Segway that his mother won in a church raffle. So, when the Segway (which he calls the Failure Mobile) gets stolen, he makes it his mission to find it and hold the thief responsible.
But before that happens, there are several side “investigations” that Timmy starts and then leaves hanging. He offers to find a fellow student’s lost backpack, but then never follows through on that promise. He’s tasked with the responsibility of taking care of his science class’ pet hamster in his home when it’s his turn to do so. But when he goes to pick up the hamster at the home of a fellow student, the hamster is dead, so Timmy says he’s going to launch a “homicide investigation” to find out who “murdered” the animal. (It never occurs to him that the hamster could have died of natural causes.) These subplots are really distractions and only serve the purpose of showing how annoying Timmy can be.
Timmy attends Cavarette Elementary School, where the classmate who can tolerate him the most is Charles “Rollo” Tookus (played by Kei), whom Timmy treats more as a sidekick than a real friend. Rollo and Timmy have an up-and-down relationship, since Timmy only seems to want to be around Rollo when he needs Rollo to help him with “detective work.” They’ve been estranged in the past: Timmy says in a voiceover narration that he had to “fire” Rollo as his business associate, but Rollo says he actually quit. As much as Timmy distrusts authority and breaks rules, Rollo (who has ambitions to go to Stanford University) likes to follow rules and respect authority.
Two other classmates who are in Timmy’s orbit are smart and likable Molly Moskins (played by Chloe Coleman) and rich girl Corrina Corrina (played by Ai-Chan Carrier). For reasons that aren’t explained in the movie, Timmy really dislikes Corrina to the point where he calls her the “most problematic” person he knows. He says that she and her family are Russian, even though there’s no proof that they are. And he refuses to call her by her name. He only refers to her as “The Nameless One.”
Is she some pre-teen female version of “Harry Potter” villain Voldemort? No. She’s actually very nice to Timmy and other people, but it’s implied that Timmy dislikes and fears her so much because he might have a secret crush on her and he thinks she’s out of his league. Timmy’s negativity about Corrina is so irrational that he thinks the Segway might be hidden in the bank that her father owns. So, Timmy and Rollo go “undercover” to the bank to investigate (their idea of “undercover” is wearing hockey masks), and some slapstick silliness ensues.
During the course of the movie, Timmy’s mother Patty begins dating a “regular Joe” type of guy named Crispin (played by Kyle Bornheimer), who works as a parking enforcement officer. He’s so self-deprecating about his job that he even calls himself a “meter maid.” It’s a joke that’s made repeatedly in the movie until it starts to wear very thin. Not surprisingly, Timmy doesn’t respect or trust Crispin, even though Crispin tries to establish a rapport with him.
Timmy’s assigned school counselor Mr. Jenkins (played by Craig Robinson) also tries to form a friendly and caring bond with Timmy, but Timmy brushes off attempts by any adults (except his mother) to get close to him. She’s really the only adult he’s willing to obey—and that moment comes when a series of mishaps caused by Timmy result in her finally getting fed up with him and grounding him.
Meanwhile, there’s someone whom Timmy considers a true enemy: Mr. Crocus (played by Wallace Shawn), Timmy’s no-nonsense authoritarian science teacher, who’s been an educator for 43 years and who openly dislikes Timmy. (The feeling is very mutual.) In a meeting with Timmy’s mother, Mr. Crocus tells her that he’s close to flunking Timmy if Timmy doesn’t drastically improve. Mr. Crocus mentions that Timmy and his mother have been given plenty of warnings, and this will be their last chance. If Timmy fails to pass Mr. Crocus’ class, then Timmy won’t graduate to middle school.
One of the best aspects of “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” is when the movie shows glimpses of fantasy sequences that are in his imagination. When middle school is first mentioned in the story, the scene flashes to Timmy’s imagination of kids being marched into a truck titled “Our Crusher of Souls.” When Timmy’s mother Patty mentions how great it would be to live in New York City, the scene cuts to a theater stage showing Timmy’s detective agency as the inspiration of an elaborate Broadway musical, complete with Total descending on the stage in a prop shaped like a half-moon. Another fantasy shows Total causing havoc in Crispin’s office at the police station, while Crispin lets out a horrified scream. But those refreshingly amusing fantasy sequences can’t quite make up for the trite and unfocused aspects of the story.
“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” will be enjoyed best by people (mostly children) who just want to see a weird kid get into all kinds of trouble on screen. Fans of mystery/detective stories will be disappointed because crime-solving is not the real attraction. The real purpose of the Timmy Failure character is to show how someone who thinks very highly of himself is in reality very inept and clueless—and that will make viewers feel better about themselves. Timmy Failure is basically an American kid version of Inspector Clouseau of “The Pink Panther” series, but with a lot less clever writing.
Disney+ premiered “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” on February 7, 2020.