erik lundegaard

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The Spy Next Door (2010)

WARNING: SPOILED-ROTTEN SPOILERS

I went into “The Spy Next Door” thinking that Jackie Chan, at 55, wouldn’t be able to perform the stunning moves he’s given us for over 30 years but hoped the story around him would make up for the deficit. It’s the opposite. He still moves with more grace than any action star in Hollywood. But the story around him?

Jackie plays Bob Ho—a take-off on “Bob Hope” as his Chon Wang in “Shanghai Noon” was a take-off on John Wayne. He’s a Chinese spy on loan to the CIA who pretends to be a pen salesman in southern California, and he’s living next door to, and romancing, a woman named Gillian, the mother of three, played by fashion model Amber Valletta. One wonders which is the bigger fantasy: the international spy next door or the international supermodel (with three kids) next door. I’ve got my pick.

Bob would like to quit the biz and marry her. Smart man! Four things are getting in the way: 1) she likes how ordinary and honest he is, when he’s been dishonest about how ordinary he isn’t; and 2)-4), her three kids hate him. He’s boring, they complain. So when Gillian’s father winds up in the hospital because of a senior softball accident, Bob volunteers to babysit while she flies to his side. He’s going to win them over.

The kids are the usual mix of Hollywood stereotypes and impossibilities. Farren (Madeline Carroll), verging on adolescence, wants to dress in short skirts and bare mid-riffs, and takes forever in the bathroom. Ian (Will Shadley), the middle child, has the vocabulary of a Harvard freshman but wants to be “cool,” even as he feeds girls twice his age lines like, “If I said you had a nice body, would you hold it against me?” Finally, there’s Nora (Alina Foley), who’s cute and runs away a lot. Together they conspire, as Farren says, “to deep-six Bob.” While searching for evidence against him, Ian downloads sensitive material that get the bad guys, Russian terrorists, on their trail.

But first Bob has to screw up making breakfast while the kids sit at the table and roll their eyes. Then he drives them to school while they roll their eyes and argue about who gets the front seat. Then he loses Nora at the mall and has to perform a Jackie Chanesque stunt to get her back. Eventually he uses the tools of his trade to keep them in line, and he has heart-to-hearts with Farren and Ian, but they always get back to rolling their eyes.

“The Spy Next Door” is billed as a family comedy but one wonders how good it is for families. Not because Gillian is a single mom and Farren isn’t her child—it’s her ex-husband’s child from his first marriage—but because it takes a “kid’s being kids” attitude toward the brattiest behavior. It smiles and shakes its head lovingly at impossibly smart boys booby-trapping their sisters’ hair-dryers and 11-year-old girls dressing like sluts. When Ian complains that he wants to be cool, Bob tells him “You are cool,” rather than, “Why do you want to be cool?” or “Isn’t cool boring?” or “Isn’t the whole point of being cool to be disinterested? And aren’t you interesting because you’re interested?” I’m not saying the conversation would’ve worked, or should’ve worked, since it doesn’t work in real life (I’ve tried), but at least it would’ve been said. Better that than to tell Ian to brush back his hair and flip up his collar so he looks like a kid’s version of the worst preppy asshole from 1985. Which, of course, gets him noticed by the older girls at school. Because girls like preppy assholes from 1985.

Jackie isn’t completely innocent in this, either. Like Paul McCartney, he’s always had a cutsie thing that needs controlling, and director Brian Levant, whose made a career out of ending the careers of tough guys by directing them with kids (“Jingle All the Way”; “Are We There Yet?”), doesn’t control him, or the movie, enough.

English, too, will always be a problem for Jackie—particularly in comedies. He’s much funnier in Cantonese or Mandarin. At one point Bob is supposed to say, “Maybe you write her a poem”; but Mandarin, and I assume Cantonese, has no closing “m” sounds, only opening “m” sounds (example: “Mei-guo” for “America”), and he can’t quite get his mouth around “poem.” During the closing-credit “blooper” reel, he says the line over and over before shaking his head and declaring, “I hate English.” That ad-lib made me laugh harder than any scripted line in the movie. Maybe because there was honesty behind it.

There are some sweet moments. When Nora has trouble sleeping Bob sings her a Mandarin lullaby. And when Farren complains about not really being part of the family, Bob talks about growing up an orphan—which is what happened to Jackie (his parents abandoned him to a Peking Opera school)—and adds that family isn’t your blood but who loves you and whom you love.

Then the Rooskies come, Bob’s cover is blown, and, despite the heart-to-heart about family, Farren deep-sixes him—not because he’s boring, her original objection, but because he’s exciting. Gillian is unable to forgive him—twice—for lying to her and putting her kids in danger. Even though her kids are brats and put themselves in danger. And even though the lie was in the interest of international security. And even though his lie is nothing next to the lies the film propagates.

Ni tzi na-lie, Wong Fei-hung?

—January 10, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard