I wish that I could have really, really loved this movie. D.E.B.S. is a perennial IFC favorite, and even though there was a period of time where this movie seemed to be on several times a week, I never managed to catch it. It’s a quirky movie with a great cast and a smart concept, and although it has a great stride once it hits it, it takes so long to get there that I can’t give it 4 stars based on the last act alone.
The premise of the film is that there is a secret test within the SATs that measures a person’s aptitude for espionage. Women who pass the hidden aptitude test are recruited into the D.E.B.S. (Discipline, Energy, Beauty, Strength), a clandestine spy academy where everyone dresses like Catholic schoolgirls and learn to be superheroes. Amy Bradshaw (Sara Foster) is the posterchild of the D.E.B.S., as she made the “perfect score” on the D.E.B.S. test, but she dreams of going to art school in Barcelona. Max Brewer (Meagan Good) is the trigger-happy leader of their quartet, joined by chain-smoking French sexpot Dominique (Devon Aoki) and perpetually ditzy Janet, who has yet to earn her stripes. Amy has recently broken up with her boyfriend, Homeland Security agent Bobby (Geoff Stults), a bro who refuses to accept that it’s over, when the D.E.B.S.’s handler Mr. Phipps (Michael Clarke Duncan) assigns the squad to surveil notorious supervillain Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster), in whom Amy has an academic interest.
Lucy is a criminal mastermind, the last scion of a syndicate family who loves to steal, with diamonds, naturally, being her speciality. She’s back in the states and meeting with “former KGB” assassin Ninotchka Kaprova (Jessica Cauffiel); unbeknownst to the federal agencies tracking her, Lucy’s rendezvous is actually a blind date engineered by her bodyguard and adorably-devoted BFF Scud (Jimmi Simpson). When Bobby’s pettiness accidentally reveals the D.E.B.S. and other agencies to Lucy, a shootout ensues and she escapes, running into a warehouse where she and Amy have a pistol standoff/meet cute. Amy lets Lucy get away, and the latter realizes she’s falling for the enemy. After a few more encounters, Lucy stages a bank heist to meet Amy again, and the two abscond to be together. The rest of the D.E.B.S. organization (minus Janet, who knows Amy went willingly and begins a cyber-friendship with Scud) goes into scorched earth mode scouring the world for Amy, who’s happily shacked up; when they eventually discover the two and retrieve Amy, the D.E.B.S. Boss (Holland Taylor) agrees to cover up the incident to maintain the agency’s reputation, forcing Amy to denounce Lucy publicly at the senior prom, er, “Endgame.” Meanwhile, Lucy realizes she would rather live without crime than Amy, and sets to righting her wrongs and winning her back.
D.E.B.S. is often described as a spoof of Charlie’s Angels, but that comparison doesn’t track very well for me. The Angels were more like private detectives than spies, for one thing (at least in the original show). D.E.B.S. has more in common with Austin Powers than either the 70s Angels TV series or the godawful 2000 film adaptation (or its somehow-worse 2003 sequel) and, despite having a cast full of beautiful women, never feels like it was made with the male gaze in mind. The relationship between Amy and Lucy feels organic, if a little corny, and is never played for titillation or exploitation. There’s also a little bit of Josie and the Pussycats thrown in for good measure, with lots of colorful visuals and the third-act-squad-breakup plot development that was so popular from roughly the mid-nineties through the early-aughts, although it lacks that film’s subtlety and social commentary. As much as I enjoyed the movie once the romantic plot got rolling, overall, the film is ultimately too inconsistent to really leave a mark. As it turns out, combining clunky gags (there’s a callback joke about what Max and Amy said to each other on the first day of training as well that really thuds, as well as a one-liner about Amy going off book in her final speech) with sublime ones (Lucy and Scud lip-synching to Erasure’s “A Little Respect” over a montage of them returning stolen goods is a treasure, and the D.E.B.S.’s house’s security field having the same tartan pattern as their uniforms is a good visual joke) doesn’t work. And that’s not even getting into the inexplicably odd things that happen in this movie. Why do the D.E.B.S. top brass teleport in and out of every scene? Are they teleporting, or are they holograms?
The movie performed abysmally, making less at the box office than the average twentysomething owes in student loans. It didn’t even break six figures! But what can you really expect when you release a film that’s this uneven? Still, it’s definitely worth a watch. The soundtrack is great (there’s even a Postal Service track playing when Lucy decides to give up her life of diamond theft and doomsday lasering), which is always a plus. Brewster and Simpson make a really great on-screen pair with believable chemistry and comic timing, even if the D.E.B.S. (Amy included) are one-dimensional and kind of bleh. If you can get past some of the worst CGI gun sparks ever committed to film, this is a refreshing twist on the indie-tinged lesbian love story that was such a big draw ten years ago, just make sure you see it through to the cliché but cute conclusion.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond