Review: Barely Lethal
PLOT: A teenage special agent escapes her demanding existence in favor of living a normal life as a high schooler. But are the pressures of being the new kid in school even more harrowing than the covert missions she's used to?
REVIEW: What could have been! BARELY LETHAL misses by a wide margin, and that's a shame because it has a fun idea it seems it's going to capitalize on with gusto, and then wastes it. It's one of those cases where you wish you could take the same opening ten pages and deliver them to someone who would know what to do with them. (Tina Fey even comes to mind, since BARELY LETHAL is so very fond of referencing MEAN GIRLS.) The end result is a movie that is barely passable in lieu of possibly being a new high school comedy classic.
The hook is this: Teenage Megan (Hailee Steinfeld) is an elite agent, trained since she was a child by a secret government organization led by the stern Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson). Megan is tops in her class, but she yearns for something else: A normal teen girl's life. She hasn't been on a date or gone to a dance, etc., and the rigors of the job are eating away at her. During one particularly daunting mission to capture evil arms dealer Victoria Knox (played by Jessica Alba so you know this movie's level of seriousness), Megan fakes her own death and stealthily begins training for her new life. Having watched every high school comedy there is and read every Teen Vogue she can get her hands on, Megan is ready to face her greatest challenge: high school.
Here the movie has established a fun premise, and even though none of it is exactly hilarious, a cute, self-aware charm has been exhibited. Think of it as KINGSMAN meets HEATHERS (with a little 21 JUMP STREET thrown in). Megan is an expert in everything other than the high school scene, which may turn out to be as vicious as anything she's encountered, but because she's done her homework, she already knows what to expect. She recognizes all the tropes immediately: the mean girls, the hot rebel, the A/V geek, the class clown, etc. BARELY LETHAL is essentially going to be a takedown of every high school movie cliche while slyly playing into them. (There's a scene where some pretty cheerleaders invite Megan to sit with them during lunch, but Megan smells a cruel trap and rejects them. It turns out they had good intentions.) But then, oddly enough, director Kyle Newman and screenwriter John D'Arco ignore the many opportunities to play with this formula by making the movie just another teen high school comedy. Megan ends up falling for the hot guy, even though her best friend (Thomas Mann) is clearly the one she should be dating - if she watched all those movies, why doesn't she realize that? Same with the scene where she actually does get suckered by a couple of mean girls into doing something foolish. I'm not asking for maximum believability in a comedy of this sort, but when the story sets us up to expect smart and satirical and then opts for predictable and silly, it's a disappointment.
BARELY LETHAL hardly exploits the fact Megan's a trained soldier, either. Aside from a handful of moments where Megan uses her training in forgettable ways (she breaks into school to change a classroom seating chart to ensure she'll sit next to the hot guy), D'Arco's script frustratingly doesn't really dig in and play around with the idea. Even when a rival agent from her past (Sansa Stark herself, Sophie Turner) shows up to screw with her newfound popularity, there's a dearth of genuinely amusing interactions. The movie plays it way too safe when some bite or edge is sorely needed.
If there's a positive, it's that Newman has assembled an extremely likable cast. Steinfeld, as she proved in this month's PITCH PERFECT 2, is a thoroughly enjoyable actress, projecting sweetness, toughness and vulnerability. She's perfectly cast here, so it's a shame the movie doesn't give her better material. Sam Jackson is Sam Jackson, and while the movie underutilizes him, he can be counted upon to act like a badass even when the situation is fairly genial. The big surprise is Jessica Alba; projecting an air of chipper craziness, Alba is more entertaining here than I think she's ever been. It's a very small role (even though she's ostensibly the movie's main villain, she's relegated to the very beginning and end), but she makes the most of it. Here again is a piece of the puzzle BARELY LEGAL could have used in a more clever way, but as with almost every other opportunity, it's squandered.