August of 2017 was the worst month for cineplexes financially in twenty years. And a lot of that had to do with films underperforming: The Dark Tower failed to capture the magic of Stephen King’s magnum opus; Steven Soderbergh’s return to filmmaking in Logan Lucky didn’t find its audience; and the much maligned The Emoji Movie didn’t have the kind of legs to save it from winning the Razzie for Worst Picture. Good buzz helped Annabelle: Creation prove its extended universe had plenty of life, but aside from that it was a pretty slow month at the movies. The only real surprise hit in a month that is essentially the wildcard period for summer moviegoing was a little film called The Hitman’s Bodyguard, an R-rated buddy action-comedy with perfect casting, pairing Ryan Reynolds with Samuel L. Jackson as a couple of foul-mouthed gun toters. It wasn’t worthy of their talents, but it managed to capitalize on audiences’ disinterest in anything else playing to top the box office three weekends in a row, something that hadn’t been done by an R-rated movie since Deadpool eighteen months prior. You can absolutely chalk that one up to its circumstances, but lo and behold, it’s getting a sequel. And Lionsgate isn’t stopping there, because one year later they’ve released another like-minded spy film right around the same time in the form of The Spy Who Dumped Me. They even moved it from its crowded release date of July 6th to fit in with the doldrums of August. Well, turns out they also released it on the heels of the newest installment in arguably the biggest spy franchise in the world right now, Mission: Impossible – Fallout. And the fallout should rain down on Lionsgate this time around, as their $40 million film faces stiffer competition than its sister film did – or should I say brother film. Sure, both Hitman and Dumped feature a pair of mismatched personalities as they hilariously shoot their way across Europe, but unfortunately Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon’s talents aren’t enough for the latter to even measure up to the low bar set by the former.
In The Spy Who Dumped Me, slacker Audrey (Mila Kunis) has just been dumped over text by her M.I.A. boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux). Unwilling to let Audrey be down in the dumps on her thirtieth birthday is her overbearing best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon). However, the pity party doesn’t last long, as Drew’s sudden return to Los Angeles is accompanied by an assassin attempting to kill him. Both Drew and the assassin are killed, but not before Drew is able to explain to Audrey that he is a secret agent and also entrust to her a trophy that contains valuable information that an organization known as Highland is willing to kill for. Audrey is tasked with delivering it to Austria, and in the bedlam she and Morgan are able to flee the country to do just that. Finding themselves hopping around Europe amidst a cacophony of international espionage, Audrey and Morgan must uncover who they can trust, and somehow keep themselves from getting killed in the process.
This may be an action-comedy, but usually the latter part of that equation does the heavily lifting, and The Spy Who Dumped Me is no exception, as if the pairing of Kunis and McKinnon wasn’t any indication. They’re all well and good here, particularly McKinnon, who’s gotta be one or two movies away from eclipsing her SNL fame after 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot fell below expectations; unfortunately, this isn’t the one for her either. The problem here isn’t anyone onscreen, but simply The Spy Who Dumped Me‘s tonal inconsistencies and uncertainty as to who its target audience is. One of the closest comparisons I can think of is 2008’s Pineapple Express – also an August release – but minus the necessary comedic sensibilities to appeal to those looking for lowbrow humor and minus the maneuverability to support all the senseless killing and occasional gore. If I’m putting my hindsight cap on, it would be feasible to simply rearrange some things to make this a PG-13 outing. That way you allow for the adolescent female demographic that I believe it’s already partly trying to appeal to, or at least would benefit for appealing to, because it simply does not have the gusto to earn that R-rating like the Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy-headlined The Heat. Come to think of it, this really could have used that film’s director Paul Feig, because no one really knows how to do raunchy lady action-comedies quite like he does.
At the same time, there is the action portion of this movie to consider, and though I just suggested a superior replacement, director Susanna Fogel does a fairly competent job at it. One of the early highlights involves Kunis’s and McKinnon’s characters caught in the crossfire of a shootout in a Vienna restaurant, which features some snappy fight choreography and inventive kills. One of which involves fondu – at least I believe it was fondu – but that’s all I’ll say on the matter. From then on, the deft camerawork can’t quite temper the bloodshed with appropriate humor, which is a major problem for the film going forward. As I’m sure the plot conveys, a lot of its progression relies on the audience’s suspension of disbelief that the leading duo aren’t immediately killed whenever they walk into a room. And yeah, you’re not really supposed to take these kind of movies too seriously, until The Spy Who Dumped Me suddenly asks you to, as the protagonists’ bumbling through these wacky scenarios like Buster Keaton trying to stop a runaway train doesn’t so much boil down to luck as it does to a genuine knack for espionage. And no, they’re not sleeper cell slackers like in American Ultra. Not to mention that in order for the audience to suspend their disbelief to begin with, the movie has to be rather funny, like, distractingly funny, which this is not. Instead it feels fairly rote and assembled with recycled parts to truly find a comedic identity of its own. As for the spy portion of the film, it’s similarly threadbare and perfunctory, steeped in clichés and familiar narratives that any surprise it may be gunning for hardly feels surprising. We all know that there’s someone a character trusts that they shouldn’t, and if you’re employing but not amending that trope for instance, you’re really not doing anything unique. Same reason I couldn’t get behind 2016’s Central Intelligence. Oftentimes relying solely on your stars’ charisma isn’t enough.
And it really isn’t just tone that this movie has trouble recouping. The plain fact of the matter is that it lacks any sense of confidence or direction, almost as if all those involved decided to pump out what this movie should be instead of what it could be. It all feels very safe and disposable, and ultimately dispose is what most audiences are going to do to it from their consciousnesses once the credits have rolled. It’s something that we’ve seen a hundred times over that could’ve been made anytime in the last six or seven years, and actually already has. The only creative choice it makes is to cut back and forth between the present day shenanigans and a year earlier on the night Audrey met Drew. So for those of you Justin Theroux fans out there – if there are any – who would gripe over his immediate demise, I’d probably temper your indignance at least slightly in that regard. He’s still fairly underutilized, I’ll admit, and to be honest the time jump aspect only really detracts from the film as a whole. Granted, it only happens three or four times, and for one or two minutes at a time, but always I found myself jarred out of the action sequences thanks to this character backstory layering that frankly isn’t all that intriguing. Of course, it all serves a purpose by the film’s climax, but all it ends up doing is leaving the ending feeling dull and flat and flat-out undeserved. I’m a big proponent of the notion that the most crucial moment in any kind of story is the ending, for better or worse, and The Spy Who Dumped Me has a pretty lame ending when all is said and done.
At the end of the day, I believe there’s a good Mila Kunis-Kate McKinnon shoot-em-up buddy comedy floating out there in the ether; this just isn’t it. And while it’s hardly deserving of any kind of hateful derision since it asks so little of the viewer and merely follows formula, one can’t help but imagine that it could’ve taken a risk or two, that it could have pushed the envelope into a direction that the genre hasn’t quite seen, even if it didn’t ultimately pay off. Instead it plays it safe, and the result is fairly lackluster.
Final Score: 3/10