Sunday, June 28, 2020

Silly Season: MY SPY, SCOOB!, &

And so our strangest summer movie season in quite some time marches on. This weekend spent trawling the streaming services for new movies has turned up a motley assortment. My Spy, a formulaic tough-guy-teams-up-with-a-kid comedy, has finally been released, having been bounced from a few prime release dates over the past year by struggling distributor STX, then running into the misfortune of its last known theatrical debut penciled in right before COVID shut that all down. It’s now on Amazon Prime, which is just as well, because it seems destined to be the sort of movie that plays best in the background. (I wouldn’t rush out and get a Prime subscription for it, or for anything, really.) It stars Dave Bautista, an unusually contemplative wrestler-turned-thespian, who modulates his sensitive gravel pit of a voice down to layers of real melancholy and up to stoic fish-out-of-water deadpan. I always like that. Here he’s a tough CIA operative who messes up and gets demoted to surveillance duty with an energetic tech helper (Kristen Schaal). Quite accidentally, he gets roped into the life of the woman they’re supposed to protect after her precocious daughter (Chloe Coleman) breaks his cover and blackmails him into helping her with typical kid problems and events — bullies, career day, ice skating parties, and so on. I suppose if you’ve never seen this sort of movie before, it might play better to you. The kid is cute. Bautista plays reluctant warmth well. And Schaal gets off a few good one-liners. But director Peter Segal (Grudge Match) has no facility for the requisite action scenes in the third act, and the villain is a real drip, just a standard slightly-accented guy with stringy hair, a neat coat, and a remote detonator. It’s the sort of movie where you can figure out not just the ending, but every major plot beat, and there’s not an ounce of surprise or invention between.

At least Scoob! is out here trying something sort of new for what it is before it fails. It was going to be Warner Brothers’ big theatrical summer family movie until last month it got shuffled to VOD at $20 bucks a rental. Now it’s on HBO Max, a far better price for something that really only has curiosity and nostalgia going for it, and even then only for the first ten minutes or so. This CG animated Scooby reboot tries to turn the something-like-beloved cartoon series of teens solving mysteries with their pet talking dog into a whole Hanna-Barbera Cinematic Universe. So although it starts with a sugary-sweet how-they-met prequel prologue, followed by the original theme song lovingly recreated, it quickly pivots into noisy action-adventure fetch quest nonsense cobbling together bits of lore involving Dastardly and Muttley, Dynomutt, and Captain Caveman in a not-as-wacky-as-it-sounds 70’s Saturday Morning stew peppered with stale japes and instantly-dated pop culture references. The good vibes stop cold about 15 minutes in, when Simon Cowell steps in voicing his own waxy CG facsimile. This whole project plays like a bunch of wires got crossed back at the Intellectual Property mine, getting just enough other cartoons mixed up into Scooby’s to take it away from what makes that show fun, and not enough to make it into its own new thing. It’s just a standard whiplash candy rush of a nothing, shaping up along the same fault lines forgettable kids fare often does. I wish they’d gone all the way and also involved Josie and the Pussycats and Huckleberry Hound and Top Cat and Inch High Private Eye and what have you. No sense dipping a toe into the shallow end. Go full Roger Rabbit with it! Have some real fun! This is just a bland half-measure.

Over on Netflix is another familiar story: the underdog competition comedy. Here it’s set in the world of Eurovision, that extraordinary international campy pop music battle that has never really caught on in America as more than a niche interest. Like mimes, certain cheeses, and good pandemic response, some things are just more European than could catch on here, I suppose. Eurovision, although cancelled this year, is generally an annual delight, with winners over the years ranging from ABBA’s “Waterloo” to Celine Dion’s “Ne parter pas sans moi.” My personal favorite, and more typical of the event’s unique charms, is Finnish heavy metal band Lordi’s “Hard Rock Hallelujah,” a song performed with an electric organ pounding along with howling guitars while the band yelps out the melody while dressed like escapees from Mordor. So you can see why Will Ferrell might think he could fit right in. Thus Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is born. Here he co-stars with Rachel McAdams as an unlikely Icelandic band who’ve never gone farther than their small town’s pub, where the locals barely tolerate them unless they’re revving up the old drinking standard, “Jaja Ding Dong.” (The original songs in the movie are quite good, from this rinky-dink local tune, to the more elaborate contest songs, especially for how specifically chintzy and authentically over-produced they are.) One crazy thing leads to another, however, and the duo is improbably representing their home country on the Eurovision stage. There’s some little-fish-in-the-big-pond comedy here, and a mix of wackadoodle sentimentality as, gosh-darn-it, these over-the-hill wannabes just might pull it off and prove their doubters wrong.

Along the way to the expected results — a long, long way, running just over two hours — we get many elaborate production numbers cut with all the grace of a live awards show, silly costumes and props, wobbly accents, patter from rivals (like a slinky Russian pop star played with swivel-hipped sleaze by Dan Stevens), and loopy asides (like repeated references to a belief in elves that escalates to a Will-Ferrell-ian payoff). It’s all shot and paced rather indifferently by director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) in an over-lit, flat style. Strangely, the cinematography looks better as a TikTok ad than on my 4K TV, for whatever that’s worth. It has the cheap Netflix look of their lesser programmers. And the plot itself is bone-deep derivative, certainly not worth the emotional investment it keeps trying to jolt to life with its estranged parents and scoffing suits and preening overdogs. It just doesn’t jell with the loose silliness of boat explosions and elaborate stage flops and endless cul-de-sac plot turns. Still, like the contest itself, the movie is never less than affectionate toward these misfits, and the songs are where it’s at. There’s a killer soundtrack of these goofy things — “Lion of Love,” “Volcano Man,” “Coolin with the Homies,” “Hit My Itch” — including a high-point faux-impromptu cameo-stuffed mashup singalong party. A leaner, tighter musical comedy would keep the good times rolling without the downtime for lumpy asides. But, hey, we’ll always have “Jaja Ding Dong.” And, if you squint a little, it’s almost like we got a Eurovision this year after all.

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