Review: ‘My Spy,’ starring Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal and Ken Jeong

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chloe Coleman and Dave Bautista in “My Spy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“My Spy” 

Directed by Peter Segal

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago and Virginia, the action comedy “My Spy” has a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, African American, white and Latino) representing the middle-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: A bumbling CIA operative is “blackmailed” by a 9-year-old girl to teach her how to become a spy.

Culture Audience: “My Spy” will appeal mostly to people who like dumb, cartoonishly violent comedies that are entirely predictable.

Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley and Dave Bautista in “My Spy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“My Spy” (directed by Peter Segal) is one of those comedies that people know will be mindless from beginning to end. There’s hardly anything funny to be found in the movie’s trailer, which is an indication of how bad the movie is if the trailer can’t even highlight any good scenes. But what might really disappoint people is how boring this action comedy really is. Dave Bautista (the movie’s “tough guy” title character) is outshone in many scenes by his co-stars, including Chloe Coleman and Parisa Fitz-Henley, who play the daughter and mother who inevitably warm this dimwitted lug’s heart.

“My Spy” was written by brothers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, a screenwriting duo whose previous credits include 2018’s “The Meg” and 2012’s “Battleship.” In other words, their specialty seems to be writing dumb action movies. But a dumb action movie can be entertaining if there’s plenty of action. “My Spy” falls very short of that expectation, as the movie’s pace gets dragged down when the main character starts dating a single mom and starts acting like a domesticated stepfather.

In “My Spy,” Bautista plays lovable dolt Jason “JJ” Jones, a CIA operative who keeps messing up his missions. JJ (who’s an ex-Special Forces agent) does it in the film’s opening scene, which takes place at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine. There’s a big fight sequence that ends with explosions, the bad guys defeated, and JJ in possession of a plutonium pit that has the power to save or destroy the world. (Don’t they all, in movies like this?)

JJ drives off in his Jeep, listening to Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” as he basks in his victory. When he arrives at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, he is greeted with a standing ovation by his co-workers. But JJ’s glory is short-lived when he’s informed by his boss David Kim (played by Ken Jeong, playing yet another in his long list of “cranky” characters) that there were actually two plutonium pits, and one of the bad guys named Azar Ahmad (played by Ali Hassan), who got away at the nuclear power plant has the other plutonium pit.

Meanwhile, David tells his team about an elusive criminal named Victor Marquez (played by Greg Bryk), an illegal arms trader who has recently been dealing in nuclear arms. Victor is so ruthless that he murdered his brother David because they were feuding with each other. Victor is believed to be working with a terrorist named Hasan (played by Basel Daoud), and the CIA thinks that the plutonium pit will find its way to Victor, who will probably sell it to Hasan.

JJ is excited about being assigned the mission to track down Victor. But his hopes are dashed because his boss David is fed up with JJ’s bungling and doesn’t want to give JJ a chance to correct his mistakes. David humiliates JJ in a group meeting by giving this coveted Victor Marquez assignment to JJ’s colleague Christina (played by Nicola Correia-Damude), and assigns JJ to “demotion” surveillance duty in Chicago. (It’s the equivalent of a homicide cop being assigned to traffic duty.)

JJ won’t be alone for this grunt work. His partner is Roberta “Bobbi” Ulf (played by Kristen Schaal, playing yet another goofy-but-nice character), who is very by-the-book. In other words, she’s more responsible than JJ. Bobbi and JJ go to Chicago, where (to JJ’s disappointment), they find out that they have to spy on a widow named Kate (played by Fitz-Henley) and her precocious 9-year-old daughter Sophie (played by Coleman), who live in a modest apartment.

JJ and Bobbie, who are doing surveillance duty in a nearby apartment on the same floor, are puzzled over why they have the boring task of spying on this innocent mother and daughter. However, it’s pretty obvious to viewers that Kate (who’s an emergency-room nurse) and Sophie aren’t just random characters in this story, especially when it’s revealed that they recently moved to Chicago to start a new life after Sophie’s father died.

Sophie is smart but she’s an outcast at school. One day, Sophie finds some of the surveillance equipment in her apartment discovers that JJ and Bobbi are CIA agents who are responsible for the spying. And Sophie has the evidence on video that she recorded on her phone.

JJ and Bobbi are terrified that this kid will blow their cover, so they let Sophie “blackmail” them. She tells them that she won’t release the video if JJ will teach her how to be a spy. It’s clear within the first few minutes of JJ and Sophie’s interaction with each other that what Sophie really wants is a father figure and a protector, since she’s lonely and having a hard time making friends at school.

The action comes to a screeching halt when long stretches of the movie consist of JJ hanging out with Sophie, and JJ and Kate developing a romance. Bobbi disapproves of this breach of protocol, but she’s more afraid of being exposed as a spy by Sophie than whatever ethics policies that JJ is breaking. Of course, this movie is so stupid that it wants viewers to believe that even though JJ is considered to be an untrustworthy screw-up by his boss, no one from the CIA bothered to check up on JJ in Chicago.

Therefore, when JJ hangs out with Sophie or Kate in public, he’s not exactly “undercover.” Although Fitz-Henley and Coleman have convincing chemistry together as mother and daughter, the “romance” chemistry between Fitz-Henley and Bautista isn’t very convincing. Coleman’s Sophie is both charming and bratty, but the movie’s script is so poorly written that the character barely rises above the generic “smart aleck” kid that’s been seen in many other movies.

And since JJ is supposed to be “tough on the outside and tender on the inside,” he’s socially awkward when it comes to dating. It just so happens there are two apartment neighbors in the building who come to JJ’s rescue to help him with grooming, wardrobe and romance advice: gay live-in boyfriends Carlos (played by Devere Rogers) and Todd (played by Noah Dalton Danby). A running joke in the film is that Carlos is the sassy motormouth, while Todd is the type who doesn’t like to talk. Todd literally does nothing but grunt in the movie, but this gag gets old very quickly.

The action scenes in “My Spy” are also cringeworthy, especially those involving explosions. Characters walk too close to explosions, which look like cheap visual effects. In real life, these people would be knocked down or severely burned if they walked that close to an explosion, not to mention the damage to their lungs from inhaling all that noxious smoke.

STX Entertainment was originally going to release “My Spy” in theaters, but the company dumped the movie by selling it to Amazon Prime Video. It’s easy to see why this dud isn’t worth the price of a movie ticket. With long spans of the film bogged down in the would-be “stepdad” subplot, “My Spy” fails to deliver a suspense-filled action story. In that regard, the movie is very much like JJ—a lot of witless talk with a lot of bungling along the way.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “My Spy” on June 26, 2020.

Review: ‘Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,’ starring Winslow Fegley, Ophelia Lovibond, Kyle Bornheimer, Wallace Shawn and Craig Robinson

February 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Winslow Fegley in "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made"
Winslow Fegley in “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” (Photo by Dale Robinette/Disney+)

“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made”

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.

Winslow Fegley, Chloe Coleman, Kei and Ai-Chan Carrier in "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made"
Winslow Fegley, Chloe Coleman, Kei and Ai-Chan Carrier in “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” (Photo by Dale Robinette/Disney+)

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.