Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
Oh, Miley Cyrus. She’s one of the biggest and most ubiquitous pop stars in the world, but the whole movie-star thing just hasn’t been working out for her, in spite of the gaudy grosses that met her initial forays into the medium. Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best Of Both Worlds Concert, her collaboration with mysterious doppelgänger Hannah Montana, grossed more than $70 million in theaters alone. 2009 kept the unstoppable momentum going with Hannah Montana: The Movie, which grossed more than $150 million.
A formula was established: Miley Cyrus + Hannah Montana + movies = boffo box office. Then Cyrus did something disastrous for her movie career: She grew up. She cast off the golden handcuffs of Disney kid stardom, waved Hannah Montana goodbye, and reinvented herself as a sexy, strong-willed pop diva with a hunky movie-star fiancé. She publicly dallied with the deplorable practice of smoking marijuana. Her dad said in an interview that he’s convinced Satan is attacking his family, which might explain his daughter’s transformation from Disney-engineered Girl Next Door to a sexpot who tweets scandalous pictures of herself and collaborates with the likes of Tyler, The Creator.
True, 2010’s The Last Song was a substantial hit, but that benefited from the gooey pandering of Nicholas Sparks, who wrote the book it was based on. When Cyrus sets out on her own, without Sparks or the Disney machine behind her, the results tend to skip the multiplexes altogether en route to Netflix and Redbox. 2012’s LOL received a fate befitting a Miley Cyrus/Demi Moore movie named after a braying Internet acronym: a minimal theatrical life, a discreet rush to video burial, and my autopsy.
Now Cyrus has hit video-store shelves again with So Undercover. Although it should be called Li’l Miss Congeniality, due to its shameless borrowing from a Sandra Bullock movie I suspect members of Cyrus’ generation see as a modern-day classic to aspire to, not a mediocre action-comedy that happened to do well commercially.
Cyrus stars in So Undercover as a street-smart, hard-as-nails private investigator skilled in the arts of street-fighting and jujitsu. (Please take a moment to recover from laughing.) Her father (Mike O’Malley), an ex-cop fired from the force because of his gambling addiction, has schooled her in the fine art of reading people and situations. At 18, Cyrus is a distaff Sherlock Holmes, and her father trusts her so much, he doesn’t mind hurling her into dangerous situations, though he does take umbrage at her using profanity.
In this scene, Cyrus uses those finely honed skills of deduction against her father when he lies to her about having lost $17,000 at the track. Cyrus grows into her performance, but at the beginning, she’s hilariously unconvincing as a motorcycle-riding genius gumshoe who fantasizes about exotic makes of firearms and sweet-ass motorcycles at an age when most of her peers are stuck on boys and clothes.
O’Malley regrets losing the money at the racetrack because supposedly, it somehow would have allowed him to get back on the force. But in the kind of coincidence often found in movies like these, Cyrus suddenly ends up in a position to make $15,000, which FBI man Jeremy Piven offers her if she goes undercover at a sorority to help uncover important papers.
To help O’Malley (watch enough films like this, and you begin to feel the smudgy fingerprints of executives and/or producers insisting that such subplots will give the film “heart”), Cyrus agrees to the assignment. But first, she needs to understand the curious customs of girly-girls, so a peppy personal-style mentor and a hairdresser teach her that the key to passing as a sorority girl is emptying your mind of all thoughts and peppering your conversations with way-moby modern slang like “amazeballs” and “bomb.com.” Cyrus is a quick-but-grudging study, although when flustered, she accidentally says things like, “Your balls are amazing.”
At the sorority house, Cyrus struggles to fit in with a clique of girls who do what the filmmakers imagine young women do with their time: stand around in their underwear and discuss what they’d like more than anything in the world. In So Undercover’s estimation, at least, what the young women of today want more than anything are white Bentleys, appearing on “quality” reality shows, having a billion Twitter followers, and traveling to Cabo San Lucas with Chelsea Handler, whom the film presents as the high priestess of sorority sisters.
You know what else young women love to do? Squeal ecstatically while lasciviously washing cars and playfully spraying other scantily clad young car-washers. To give So Undercover credit, the gratuitous sexy car-wash scene involves the sorority’s rival, and it prompts the only two clever lines in the film, as Cyrus’ sorority sisters jealously gaze at their soaped-up enemies and utter uncharacteristically clever observations like, “It’s basically prostitution with detergent,” and “They’re so lucky they had bad childhoods.”
So Undercover’s premise echoes and parallels Cyrus’ own career progression. Like her character, she’s a precocious overachiever who enters her father’s business at an early age and with tremendous success, establishing herself as an affable tomboy before undergoing a glam transformation into a diva.
Most folks experience college in a fog of one form or another, be it chemically, hormonally, or naïveté-induced, so there’s a germ of a clever idea in having an outsider like Cyrus experience college in a completely lucid state of hyper-awareness. There’s something furtively subversive about making an ordinary-seeming teenage girl like Cyrus smarter and savvier than everyone around her, but the film uses her smarts primarily to drive the plot forward.
So Undercover ultimately rises to the level of mediocrity. It isn’t the unintentionally hilarious train wreck its early obsession with instantly dated slang suggests, but there’s nothing particularly distinctive or noteworthy about it, either. After a rocky start, Cyrus is thoroughly passable, although her performance merits the ultimate passive-aggressive insult. To borrow Bill Murray’s infamous estimation of Chevy Chase during the glory years of Saturday Night Live, Cyrus is unmistakably a “medium talent.” She’s cute but not gorgeous, likeable enough but a little bland, and a good-enough actress as long as she’s not asked to do anything remotely challenging.
Like all child stars, Cyrus is growing up in public and enduring all the battle scars that come with it. In that respect, So Undercover ultimately qualifies as little more than cinematic growing pains for a pop icon still trying to figure out the whole film business. As growing pains go, this one’s pretty painless, but it’s far from amazeballs or the bomb.com.
Just how bad is it? Eh, it could be a lot worse.