In no way does Barely Lethal work. It is a failure on every level, an insult to the intelligence of anyone who’d see it. Mere minutes into the runtime, the inconsistencies, inadequacies, and imbecilities began piling up. It is completely devoid of interest, which hurts all the more because its concept is marginally clever and has the right cast to make it work. It’s a mashup between a high school comedy and a spy movie, with young people Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), Dove Cameron (Liv and Maddie), and adults including Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Alba, and Rachael Harris. Doesn’t that sound like a fun time? You can imagine how it could be sold. It’s Mean Girls meets Kingsman! It’s Spy Kids meets The Guest! If only.
The plot concerns a secret school for orphan girls where they’re trained as spies and sent on missions. It’s a skimpily populated program, seemingly run out of an empty warehouse. And how many operations do we see? Well, one girl steals a briefcase. Later, they catch a villain by flying overhead and lassoing her. That’s it. The expectations are apparently so strenuous, though, our lead (Steinfeld) fakes her own death and enrolls in high school as a foreign exchange student. She binge-watches classic teen comedies to prep, so obviously she makes wacky mistakes! Whoopsy-daisy. It’s also a mistake to show us clips from Clueless and the like right at the top, knowing how terrible the next 80 minutes will be. It reminds us of better options.
Anyway, the young woman discovers high school stress is totally hard, what with weird teachers, awkward flirting, and petty jealousies. (Nothing you haven't seen in high school comedies before.) The movie’s one funny observation is that secret agent business is easier than 12th grade. Alas, first-time feature screenwriter John D’Arco and director Kyle Newman (of Taylor Swift’s “Style” video) develop their concept in the most routine way possible, with some low-rent farce, then a few horribly shot, awkwardly edited, phony baloney action beats. The girl’s employer (Jackson, seemingly the only person running the organization) soon discovers her whereabouts. Then, there’s a perfunctory showdown with the villain, who Alba plays like a bored soccer mom in what’s probably the funniest and most consistent performance in the ensemble. She gets that this whole thing is dumb with a capital Duh. Everyone else is as bored as I was. Jackson gives the most lifeless line readings of his career. He could’ve been shooting his scenes on an idle corner of Avengers green screen during lunch breaks.
Forced frivolity abounds in sequences indifferently dumped onto the screen. The kids are enthusiastic enough, but given such mealy mush to speak it’s a wonder they got through a single take without gargling. The writing is overeager straining comedy. It’s a blur of lines tilting towards self-conscious references and over-articulated dirtiness. It's grating. Late in the movie, one girl brags about her figure saying, “It’s P90X, bitch!” To which her rival replies, “More like P90X-tra large, bitch!” First of all, it’s not funny. Second of all, it’s inaccurate. Third of all, it’s repetitive. And why can’t even a terrible movie like this one take its great, potentially clever, concept and run with it instead of devolving into pathetically limp body-shaming snark? Yeesh.
Oh, this is so incompetent. Nothing works. Nothing hangs together. It lacks a coherent point of view, or even narrative momentum. It’s a weak jumble of overlit, lazily blocked, haphazardly cut scenes. There’s no pulse, no imagination, no joy. Best-case scenario, this was a bigger picture scaled down to fit a tiny budget. Too bad that only revealed the lack of ingenuity and creativity all the more. There aren’t thousands of extras or slick CGI, or even good old resourcefulness, to mask its bankrupt nature. I cringed with second-hand embarrassment for a talented cast paid to work on a project so far beneath them I hoped they didn’t get vertigo.