** out of ****
Central Intelligence doesn’t represent bad taste or mean-spirited entertainment, but it does represent so much of what is wrong with American comedy movies today: It’s so confident in its comic star-power, that it ends up being unfocused and lazy. Many people will see this movie and many will enjoy it, but I cannot ignore its problems in the same way that the filmmakers ignored its potential.
Mediocre crowd-pleasers are the enemy of so many critics because they aim to please people who don’t freely see movies as often as critics are required to. Critics want to speak for the people but can’t conscionably recommend something when its cheap tactics fail to rise above the run-of-the-mill fare of which they’ve seen too much.
As a part-time critic, I often avoid movies starring two popular entertainers, who, when featured on the poster, are against a plain background with a title in some easy-to-read typeface and are possibly holding firearms. It presents the promise of basic-level action and comedy like the picture of a burger and fries on a McDonalds drive-through menu.
It was when I saw that this movie shared creative minds with those behind Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, We’re the Millers and The Mindy Project, that I chose to give it a shot. I regard none of these as great works, but they all rose above their expected banality.
The movie begins in a flashback where a pep-rally at one Central High School is taking place. A fat teenager named Robbie Weirdicht (Dwayne Johnson –or at least his face during this part) is dancing to En Vogue in the shower of the boy’s locker room while bullies move in on him to pull a prank. Upstairs in the gym, Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is receiving accolades as the most popular guy in school who has been voted “Most Likely To Succeed” by his peers. It is here where the naked Robbie is thrown out onto the gym floor by the bullies and humiliated, only receiving empathetic help from Calvin.
Cut to the present and Calvin is married to his high school sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet) while living in a nice house and working as an accountant. His wife is pressuring him to attend their high school reunion but he doesn’t want to go because he feels like a failure (Although some high school valedictorians have done worse).
Calvin is mysteriously friended on Facebook by Robbie who has changed his name to Bob Stone and insists that the two meet up. Desperate to avoid marriage counseling, Calvin obliges and when the two meet at a suburban sports bar, he is surprised to see the intimidating presence of a lean muscular giant even if Bob has all the same feminine tastes and awkward optimism he did in high school.
Calvin seems a little uncomfortable around Bob, but soon warms up when it’s revealed how much he is idolized by the guy who left high school in embarrassment and went on to be an empowered person who proves his value in a fight later that evening when the two are threatened by thugs.
Things aren’t what they seem, however, when Bob asks Calvin for a favor that results in agents from the C.I.A. (led by Amy Ryan) knocking at Calvin’s door the next day, who reveal that Bob is a rogue agent wanted for treason. From there on, Calvin is trying to maintain the normalcy of his life while the agents and Bob separately shake things up.
That’s not a bad setup for an action/comedy. It’s predictable, yet functional. Central Intelligence is also a rare example of colorblind casting even if it is starring two of the most bankable non-white actors working today. Aside from a couple funny race-related quips from Kevin Hart’s character, he, nor the still critically undervalued Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson seem to be written with race in mind.
The movie establishes itself well but isn’t made of parts that fit together naturally because it constantly blends offbeat humor with awkward humor, a common incompatibility that continues to go overlooked in film and TV.
As a story, it misses many grand opportunities to be darker, leaving little character developments that could have gone in interesting directions unattended. The unearned sentimental character arcs in the film are another expected annoyance.
Through unexpected cameos, slapstick, clever one-liners and some funny chemistry, this movie has its moments but not enough of them.