By Chaz Lipp
I’ll just come right out and say it—I’m a Miley Cyrus fan. Part of that is out of sympathy for the abuse she often gets from the media. Endlessly scrutinizing young actresses over their physical appearance isn’t fair (or healthy for the psyche of the individual being scrutinized). So maybe some of her publicized antics aren’t exactly setting a great example for the preteen set—that’s because at 20, Cyrus is now a young woman no longer catering to the tween crowd. She started covering Nirvana in her concerts and some folks freaked out. More power to her, the worst that can come of that is a few kids in the audience had their first exposure to that band.
But she’s still obviously in transition, as So Undercover, her new direct-to-video starring vehicle, ably demonstrates. Midway through 2012, Cyrus starred in LOL—a film seen by hardly anyone, relatively speaking—and acquitted herself quite nicely as a dramatic actress, playing the daughter of Demi Moore. All the media could do was guffaw at its anemic box office returns (as if that has ever been indicative of any film’s quality). So Undercover is more along the lines of what the average person probably expects from Cyrus, whether they like her or not.
Cyrus plays Molly, a private detective who has been working for her father, Sam (Mike O’Malley), since she was 11. They tail cheaters and such, taking photos covertly, but Molly occasionally risks life and limb in the process (as seen in the pre-credits sequence where she improbably leaps balconies in a high rise apartment building). She catches the attention of FBI agent Armon (Jeremy Piven, a long way from Entourage) who needs to send someone undercover at a university. He’s working on a big sting operation involving the Georgian mafia and Alex (Lauren McKnight), a sorority member at the college, is the daughter of one of the suspects. Or something like that.
Sorry if the more complicated details of the plot somehow evaded me. The whole point of So Undercoveris watching Molly, the supposedly tough as nails PI, trying to fit in with flirty, ditzy, fashion-obsessed college girls. There have been plenty of movies about surly, mannish, or just generally less-than-dainty females being forced to adapt to uncomfortable environments. Neither Allan Loeb and Steven Pearl’s screenplay nor Tom Vaughan’s direction gives Cyrus the opportunity to really play “before and after.” Molly gets a makeover, but we never really buy that she would be so out of place in a dorm to begin with.
There’s some fun to be had here, with Cyrus tossing off one-liners and asides with the skill of the seasoned sitcom star she is. I happen to enjoy her charisma, I just want to see her apply it to funnier material. Kelly Osbourne is on hand, along with Megan Park (using an over-the-top Southern accent—“Yer money or yer laugh,” she says while pointing a gun—to distinguish herself from Grace in The Secret Life of the American Teenager). Piven’s just cashing a check, Josh Bowman plays the obligatory love interest Nicholas, and O’Malley makes little impression as Molly’s gambling addict dad (it’s his debt that forced his daughter to partner with the feds in the first place). The movie rests almost entirely on Cyrus and she manages to make the whole forgettable affair watchable, at the very least.
Millennium Entertainment’s Blu-ray offers a sharp, high definition transfer of Denis Lenoir’s digital cinematography. There’s little to distinguish this visually from any decently budgeted current TV show. But that’s fine because no one is coming to So Undercover for stunning visuals. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is on the same level; serviceable in every way, but nothing anyone is going to write home about. The pop rock tunes sound fine, if a little thin at times due to less-than-robust LFE activity. Who knows why Cyrus didn’t sing anything on the soundtrack, but I watched the credits just to be sure.
No special features of any kind grace So Undercover. Who this PG-13 movie is aimed at is a little unclear. It feels like it’s directed more at Miley Cyrus’ younger fans, but the language and themes are possibly a tad bit mature for them. Unfortunately it’s not a step forward from LOL—hopefully she’ll have a chance to continue in that direction in the near future.