As the entertainment industry re-segments itself with every new cable channel, peculiar pop subcultures are emerging. Superstars exist within very specific demographics, like, say, Nickelodeon’s live-action comedy programming, aimed at children aged between 11 and a half and 12 and three-quarters. Inevitably, some of these stars try to make it on the big screen, leaving some moviegoers to look upon the poster for Big Fat Liar and wonder who Amanda Bynes is, or how Frankie Muniz got his name above the title.
Now, a year later, Muniz (most famous, of course, as the star of Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle), returns with a new female costar, Hilary Duff, in Agent Cody Banks. This time, I am prepared. Hilary Duff is the star of a Disney Channel sitcom, Lizzie McGuire, which I have seen. It’s one of those shows about kids who are about 13, aimed at kids who hope that when they turn 13, it’ll be a lot like Lizzie McGuire.
With low production values, bright colors, and outlandish sound effects, Disney Channel sitcoms serve as a bridge between cartoons and Dawson’s Creek; Lizzie McGuire appeals to kids raised on cartoons while tantalizing them with a pop fantasy of young adulthood. Its demographic pandering lends it a primal single mindedness. Watching a show designed for ‘tweens is like being let in on a secret world. The most effective “children’s entertainment,” for instance, Robert Rodriguez’s splendid Spy Kids series, lets us in on this world via imaginative metaphors and clever insights.
Lizzie McGuire isn’t exactly good television, but its likable, shlocky fantasy of adolescence is weirdly entertaining in a way that Agent Cody Banks never matches. The titular undercover agent (Muniz) is a 15-year-old, secretly trained at a CIA camp, attempting to balance his spy duties with his everyday life. His first assignment is to “get close” to a popular girl, Natalie (Duff), whose scientist father is involved with a nanotechnology-based plot to, like, destroy the world and stuff.
The idea of a tenth-grader trying to save the world in between homework and chores is potentially amusing, and Agent Cody Banks wrings a handful of laughs from its premise (borrowed most liberally from Spy Kids). In one scene, Banks is confronted by his superiors over his inability to talk to his mark. The higher-ups are confused because they heard Banks brag about his prowess with the ladies during training. “It was summer camp!” he protests. “Everyone exaggerates!”
If only the filmmakers evinced such understanding of adolescent experience throughout. Banks is certainly in over his head, but he’s rarely allowed to be a child; as written, he’s little more than yet another rookie agent. Cody’s shuttled from a generic public high school to a generic private high school, but there’s no display of how he adapts to either. Because the film makes no effort to represent Cody’s sensibility, the “real world” aspects of the movie wind up looking as unbelievable as the spy stuff. Here again, the Spy Kids movies provide a contrast: they feature younger characters, but have respect for the ways real kids talk and behave, and deliver more elaborate and entertaining visuals than Harald Zwart’s film. And so, they work as unsentimental coming-of-age stories as well as adventures.
Agent Cody Banks does offer a few funny moments — a fleeting James Bond homage, with Banks playing roulette with fake money at a Vegas-themed birthday party, comes to mind — but they lead nowhere. By its noisy conclusion, the movie isn’t so different from the more tepid 007 movies. But why make a Bond movie for ‘tweens? There’s little in most of them that would disturb the average 12-year-old, so Banks can’t help but seem unnecessary, and unnecessarily simple. Kids can handle more: more satire, more intelligent characters, and more laughs than this movie offers.
Perhaps the prospect of seeing Muniz in action is exciting to his younger fans. But he looks pained here. Not the comic discomfort of a Ben Stiller, but genuinely ill at ease. It would help if his fights and chases were choreographed with some joy, but most of the derring-do is unconvincing and poorly directed, even for a kidflick. It would also help if the cast worked well together. Muniz and Duff are reportedly friends offscreen, but you wouldn’t know it from this movie, as they tend to communicate with one another by flailing their limbs.
The cast also includes Angie Harmon (previously chilly on Law & Order), appearing as a cat-suited CIA agent. She makes an okay pinup, but Agent Cody Banks seems like a last-ditch place to show off your big-screen sexuality. The rest of the adult cast just mugs, with the exception of Chang Tseng, who mugs offensively. As Cody’s driving instructor, he yammers and hollers in a thick, beyond-cartoonish accent, reduced to a superfluous stereotype.
Despite, or maybe because of, this, kids may enjoy the movie, even if they forget about it the next day. The Spy Kids comparisons may not be entirely fair, but this movie invites them, in part because of its own lack of invention. The upcoming third Spy Kids film is reportedly the last, as the actors are getting too old. Frankly, I’d like to see Spy Teens, but Agent Cody Banks, try as it might, isn’t that movie.