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So Undercover

2012 | 94 min | PG-13 | 2.39:1

So Undercover


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 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, February 2, 2013

“So Undercover” represents star Miley Cyrus’s attempt to distance herself from the tween entertainment she’s known for, without upsetting her fanbase. It’s more adult in design, trying to toughen up the actress with action and intrigue, while remaining attentive to the needs of light comedy and romantic interests. It’s not an especially impressive picture, but its hunt to find something new for Cyrus to do on-screen is interesting, building a bridge between her cheery “Hannah Montana” work and her thespian intentions for the future. “So Undercover” offers Cyrus brandishing guns, dodging explosions, and engaging in terrible improvisations. The little Disney star is all grown up, though Cyrus in need of a script that’s as interested in maturity as she is.

A private investigator specializing in infidelity cases, Molly (Miley Cyrus) has been raised by her disgraced cop dad (Mike O’Malley) to be a tough, instinctual woman who’s fantastic with details. Recruited by F.B.I. Agent Armon (Jeremy Piven), Molly is asked to go to college, posing as a transferring sorority sister to gain access to Alex (Lauren McKnight), a troubled student possibly in possession of critical data the Georgian Mafia would like to get their hands on. Slipping into this alien world of homework, parties, and excessive make-up, tomboy Molly is overwhelmed with the challenge, soon finding the flow of campus life, while befriending her screwball sisters (including Alexis Knapp and Kelly Osbourne). As the case develops and Molly begins to connect the pieces, her concentration is interrupted by Nicholas (Joshua Bowman), a handsome man who’s taken a romantic interest in the overachiever, and there’s Sasha (Eloise Mumford), the alpha sister at the sorority house who’s upset about all the positive attention Molly is receiving.

Although it’s hardly a David Mamet play, “So Undercover” does provide a challenge for Cyrus and her limited acting range. After years of basic cable mugging and somber forays into film (including “The Last Song” and last May’s “LOL”), Cyrus comes to this project in need of a change of pace. The screenplay, credited to Allan Loeb and Steven Pearl, provides a growth spurt of sorts, asking the star to portray a dowdy woman with a complete ignorance of material things and modern slang. Molly’s a private investigator with a long history of do-goodery, shaped into a sharp, practical person who’s become a parent of sorts to her own father, a man struggling with gambling and drinking issues. Despite her best intentions, it’s a little hard to accept Cyrus in the role of a no-nonsense martial arts master, visibly laboring to feign disgust with her undercover toys, including packs of gum, a bedazzled cell phone, and a new car (product plugs aren’t subtle), while her attempts to fumble youthful zingers like “amazeballs” are completely artificial.

There’s also a question of appearance, with Molly undergoing a special makeover (complete with bitchy stylists) to turn the grungy surveillance expert into the Miley Cyrus we all know and tolerate. “So Undercover” would be a lot more interesting keeping Molly in casual mode, with the character waging war with her pink costuming, but that would be asking more of the star than she’s willing to give. The best part of the movie, where Molly reveals toughness and Cyrus is allowed to play against type, is over in the first act, leaving the rest of the effort to parade around feeble sorority girl clichés and stoke a mystery plot that’s a touch too complicated for director Tom Vaughn (“What Happens in Vegas,” “Starter for 10”) to manage without breaking a sweat.

The ladies of the sorority are standard-issue dim-wits and manic types who are changed by Molly’s presence, with most of the comedy emerging from these women and their adorable cluelessness and general vapid manner of being. However, we’ve seen these supporting characters before, leaving the midsection of the movie, where Molly blossoms at the house, a chore to sit through, absent comedic surprise. Instead, there’s a routine of parties, competition between sororities, and a reveal of sister secrets, while Molly works the campus, observing professors taking advantage of students while getting caught up in the thrill of education. Vaughn develops the mystery of the hidden data, but it’s a lost cause, competing with bonding time and the introduction of Nicholas, who’s here to satisfy screenwriting formula, not organically intensify Molly’s collegiate experience.

While slickly produced, “So Undercover” lumbers from scene to scene, eventually relying on predictable plot twists and an action-oriented finale meant to squeeze suspense out of sleepwalking material. Endeavoring to reveal more sides to Cyrus as she moves over to twentysomething pursuits, “So Undercover” isn’t ambitious and brave enough to truly shake up her career in new and exciting ways.

Starring: Miley Cyrus, Jeremy Piven, Alexis Knapp, Joshua Bowman, Mike O'Malley, Lauren McKnight
Director: Tom Vaughan

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