Barely Lethal (2015)

2016 #49
Kyle Newman | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Barely LethalHailee Steinfeld stars as a teenage girl raised from childhood by a top-secret government organisation to be an expert agent, but who has always longed for a more normal experience. When the organisation thinks she’s died on a mission, she uses it as a chance to have that normal life. Researching the high school experience from teen movies, she heads off to a typical US high school… and finds life isn’t quite like the movies. Though it is a bit, but it’s allowed to be so long as you keep referencing the movies you’re riffing off… right? Oh, and of course her old life keeps intruding, in the form of people wanting to kill her ‘n’ all that.

Barely Lethal (that’s a pun on “barely legal” rather than a synonym for “mostly harmless, incidentally) was very poorly reviewed by critics, and I don’t know that audiences gave it that much better a reception, but at this point that works in its favour. You see, its production values are a little cheap and cheerful (despite a recognisable cast that also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Alba, and Sophie Turner), and sometimes it really falters with an overuse of clichés (is it OK to reference that they’re clichés, or if you point out you’re using a cliché is it still bad because you are still using that cliché?). But if its establishing concept sounds like something you might enjoy, and you go in with suitably lowered expectations, then I think there’s a fair chance you’d find it to be a frequently amusing, occasionally very funny, and sometimes quite sweet high school comedy — with added doses of action comedy for good measure. There’s even one great scene (which is more than many a “very good” film can claim); the kind of scene that, when it happens, is so right it feels like kind of an obvious idea, but I’ve never seen it done before (it kinda requires a premise like this to even work) and is pretty faultlessly executed.

In terms of pure, simple, for-what-it-is enjoyability, there’s part of me that wants to go out on a limb and say Barely Lethal just edges a 4… but the critical part of my brain points to those parts that are clunky, overfamiliar, or underdeveloped. I did think it was mostly undemanding fun, though.

3 out of 5

Election (1999)

2016 #74
Alexander Payne | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The third feature (but first you’re likely to have heard of) by writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska; he also co-wrote Jurassic Park III, did you know that? I didn’t know that) stars Matthew Broderick as a high school teacher who tries to stop Reese Witherspoon’s perfect student from becoming president of the school council.

With Witherspoon largest on the poster, and the title being Election, you’d naturally assume that’s where the film’s focus lies. Really, it’s about Broderick and the disintegration of his life, from a happily married man and dedicated teacher beloved by his students, to… well, where he ends up (no spoilers!) The poor guy’s really put through the ringer, though a lot of it is of his own making, so how much we sympathise is questionable.

Indeed, the whole film has a conflicted idea of identification. It has you side with a teacher who wants to tear down the dreams of a bright, dedicated, enthusiastic young student. And I don’t mean it tries to get you to side with him — you do side with him. But then it proceeds to tear his whole life apart, as if in punishment for what he wanted to do; and, by extension, it punishes you for wanting him to do it. So maybe those ideas of identification aren’t actually conflicted — which might imply it doesn’t know where it wants you to lay your support — but, rather, it knows exactly who you’re going to support, and thinks you’re a bad, bad person for doing so.

Broderick is suitably exasperated as the man whose life slowly falls apart, and Witherspoon is primly perfect as the overly-chirpy student — I’m sure she must remind everyone of someone they knew at school, and that’ll just make you dislike her all the more. (If there wasn’t someone like that in your class… are you sure it wasn’t you? Just sayin’.) It’s also the debut of Chris Klein (who went on to quality cinema like American Pie, the Rollerball remake, and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li), as the nice-but-dim jock who Broderick taps to stand against Witherspoon in the election. His younger sister, played by Jessica Campbell (who stopped acting a couple of years later, it seems), is a jilted lesbian rebel who also stands in the election on a platform of wanting to destroy the system, and is clearly the film’s most likeable character. Or maybe that’s just me.

A bit like Office Space, Election is the kind of indie comedy that is more wryly amusing than laugh-out-loud hilarious (though it has its moments), and is no doubt more appealing the more you feel like you know the characters. I think Payne has matured into more interesting (and, sometimes, funnier) work, but this was clearly a strong starting point.

4 out of 5

This review is part of 1999 Week.

21 Jump Street (2012)

2015 #62
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller | 105 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

21 Jump StreetHaving turned the unlikely-to-be-any-good story of a machine that makes it rain food into an entertaining and amusing movie, and the unlikely-to-be-any-good concept of a LEGO-centred film into an entertaining and amusing movie, is it any wonder that directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller also turned the unlikely-to-be-any-good premise of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill starring in a remake of a forgotten ’80s teen TV series about police officers who go undercover in a high school to find drug dealers into an entertaining and amusing movie?

The prime difference from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The LEGO Movie lies in the rating: those are kids’ films (with adult-friendly angles), while 21 Jump Street is an out-and-out R. That’s unusual in itself, given the US studios’ obsession with PG-13 and this being set in a high school, but it allows Lord and Miller to push at boundaries; not just being able to be ruder and grosser, but even the whole “teens doing drugs” storyline. They manage to make the extremes funny without descending too far into toilet humour — compare it to A Million Ways to Die in the West, for example, which had its share of clever edginess but undermined it with some terribly crass bits.

Perhaps the film’s best material revolves around the changing face of high school. Tatum and Hill’s characters grew up in an era of the traditional mould, where jocks ruled and nerds were bullied. When they return undercover, the tables have turned: getting good grades and caring about the environment is cool. In a classic bit of role reversal, Shot outthis leaves Hill hanging out with the cool kids — and being lured down the path of parties and their shallower friendship — while Tatum falls in with a gang of ultra-nerdy nerds and starts actually learning stuff. Distilled like that makes it sound pat, but in the film it works; in part because they don’t overplay the clichéd “friends fall out irretrievably… until it’s retrieved for the final act” story arc.

I only watched 21 Jump Street to see what all the fuss was about, expecting to find it unlikeable and unfunny. Happily, I was completely wrong — Lord and Miller win again. Next, they’re working on an animated Spider-Man movie. At the risk of jinxing it, that sounds likely to be quite good…

4 out of 5