The problems with the new action-comedy Barely Lethal start with its title. There’s something creepy afoot when a movie leads with a metaphorical elbow in the ribs, informing you that its protagonist is just old enough to kill you by using a pun which implies that she’s also just old enough to have sex with you. Every joke in the film has that same elbow-in-the-ribs quality, desperately trying to let you know how funny it is. Most of its claims to hilarity come up short.
Hailee Steinfeld (an Oscar nominee for the Coen Brothers’ True Grit) plays a nameless teenager raised from a young age to be a super-spy by the flinty Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson). But when a mission to apprehend a rogue arms dealer (Jessica Alba) goes wrong, she is able to fake her own death and realize her dream: living like a normal teenager, as Canadian exchange student Megan Walsh. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: secret warfare is deadly, but our heroine soon finds that high school is even tougher! Especially with a rival agent played by Sophie Turner (aka Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones) on her trail.
There’s a lot to like about that previous paragraph. It’s easy to express this movie in terms of a mash-up of two great things; say, Grosse Point Blank meets Mean Girls, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Killer. It’s not especially original, but then most teen movies aren’t, and don’t need to be in order to be good. Plus, Steinfeld and Turner are superb casting choices, possibly the best two actresses in the world that director Kyle Newman (Fanboys) could have gotten for those particular roles. Although Steinfeld has been in some clunkers since her Oscar nomination, she’s still a great actress, and is fully committed here. Barely Lethal must have looked like a sure thing on paper, but went badly awry when it came down to putting the movie on film.
This movie, ostensibly a comedy, simply is not funny. There are a couple of jokes which succeed – Megan’s military analysis of the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” is a high point – but a funny movie keeps you laughing, and that does not happen here. John D’Arco’s screenplay is not able to string together two successful jokes in a row, and the ratio of misses to hits is at least 4-to-1. There are entire scenes … long, painful scenes … where the movie drowns in its own flop sweat.
All of the worst jokes that one can have in a movie are here. Do the characters name-check better movies, with the hope that the audience will laugh merely by remembering that better movie? Check (the Breakfast Club reference is especially egregious). Does a character say unfunny things in a snarky tone, with the hope that the snark will get a laugh by itself? Check (that’s basically Alba’s entire role). Are there bits so over-written that they become short stories? Check (Jackson has a joke which involves rambling for a full minute about Martin van Buren). Weirdly sexual jokes that are apropos of nothing? Check (Dan Fogler, as a closeted yet libidinous teacher, seems to be in a different movie altogether).
Worse, the action in Barely Lethal is as low-impact as the jokes. The screenplay posits that Megan is the best of the best, but the film does not put in the visual work that would tell us, “she’s better than all of those chumps you see in the background of the training scenes.” The fights are shot and edited so as to make the action incoherent; not only is it impossible to determine whether Steinfeld or Turner did any of her own stunts, but it’s impossible to determine what “her own stunts” would be. The car chase is especially dire — although Newman did not have the budget to shoot something Fast and/or Furious, most network TV shows could do better than what he delivers.
This is the danger of making a “love letter” to a favorite genre. A love letter to a genre still has to be a great example of the genre, in the way that Scream stands on its own as a fine horror movie even if one has never seen Halloween. All of the self-awareness in the world won’t save a movie that is poorly made. Barely Lethal doesn’t stand on its own as a teen movie or as an action-comedy. It’s stuck in the wilderness, riffing on its favorite things to an audience of no one in particular.