A tepid, tween-skewed reworking of “Miss Congeniality” by way of “21 Jump Street” and assorted other back-to-school capers, “So Undercover” reps another unsuccessful attempt to turn onetime teen superstar Miley Cyrus into a bigscreen thesp. There are some passable bits here and there, and overall the pic marks a slight improvement on Cyrus’ last romantic comedy, “LOL,” but the talent vacuum at the core still sucks the air out of the thing. Although “Undercover” is rolling out wide across Euroland, its Stateside run is still TBD, suggesting waning interest in Cyrus as her fanbase grows up.
First met stalking cheating husbands with a camera, young private investigator Molly Morris (Cyrus) is recruited by FBI agent Armon Ranford (Jeremy Piven) for a special op: Go undercover as a sorority girl at a New Orleans college in order to protect Alex (Lauren McKnight), the daughter of a high-profile witness in an organized-crime case. Armon believes the criminals will plant a friendly-seeming imposter in Alex’s circle of friends in order to obtain some secret MacGuffin that Alex’s dad gave her for safekeeping.
After a mildly amusing makeover sequence in which Molly is restyled alongside sorority-appropriate lines, Armon gives her the plausibly preppy moniker of “Brook Stonebridge,” which, in one of the pic’s funnier lines, Molly describes as sounding more like a gated community than a name. And then it’s off to the ultra-girly sorority house where Alex is living, a bitchy gynocracy run by head mean girl Sasha (Eloise Mumford), backed by a troika of dimwitted but decorative lieutenants (Megan Park, Morgan Calhoun and Alexis Knapp). Somewhat diluting Molly/Brook’s outsider status, the script devises a role for Kelly Osborne as the protagonist’s cynical English roommate, but her quips fall flat, and her utility to the plot remains a mystery, given that the character never seems to leave her room.
By the standards of teen-focused comedies, the script (credited to Allan Loeb and Steven Pearl) isn’t half bad; the early reels in particular include a few zingers that the pro supporting players, especially Piven and likable ingenues Mumford and Park, pull off with aplomb. There’s even a mildly diverting bit of twistiness in the last act, efficiently helmed by Tom Vaughn, whose career has gone a little awry since his auspicious feature debut, “Starter for 10,” another campus-set pic. The lush, color-saturated lensing by ace d.p. Denis Lenoir, clearly enjoying the Big Easy locations, is the cherry on top of a comely tech package.
Cyrus is, by some distance, the film’s Achilles heel. She’s painfully out of her depth here when it comes to the tricky business of playing a character who is herself playing a character, and falls back on grins and grimaces, flicking her hair extensions about to try and keep the aud’s attention. Her casting undermines what might have been a better-than-average slice of fluff.