Ironic sampling is par for the course in teen comedies today, especially when the comedy in question draws its humor from the stylistic conventions of silly movies and television shows created before we were all postmodern. Parody has become so widespread that its power to defamiliarize the moronically familiar and give it a relevant spin has been sapped through overuse.
Which is why it's always a surprise when it works. For an unabashedly silly spoof of a girly action flick, "D.E.B.S." is unexpectedly fresh, thanks mostly to the sweetly exuberant love story at its center. As a mock-tribute to special-agent-girl-in-training shows such as "Charlie's Angels," "Alias" and "Powerpuff Girls," "D.E.B.S." is not exactly the freshest sock in the hamper, but as a teen romance with a Sapphic twist it's unself-consciously sweet and genuine.
Written and directed by Angela Robinson, director of the upcoming "Herbie: Fully Loaded," and a former staff writer on the Showtime series "The L Word," "D.E.B.S." begins with a nod to the hackneyed TV convention of using explanatory credits to catch us up on the back story. A zippy mélange of girl-action kitsch, the hilarious opening sequence abuses the old holographic computer display trick and the girl-with-gun visual as they've never been abused before.
Plaid-skirted agents-in-training Amy (Sara Foster), Max (Meagan Good), Dominique (Devon Aoki) and Janet (Jill Ritchie) are on the cusp of graduating from a secret government-run academy. How did they get there? Standardized testing, of course — in the form of a secret test embedded within the SAT. Amy, the squad's leader, is known throughout the academy as "the perfect score" — the only girl to ever score 100% on the aptitude test. Her unwitting achievement turns out to be somewhat of a curse — Amy had hoped to attend art school in Barcelona, but her latent talents (for lying, cheating and killing) have led her instead to a D.E.B.S. dormitory disguised as a college sorority house.
The house is protected by — what else?— an invisible holographic force field, and it's studded with special screens for receiving orders from the D.E.B.S.' boss, Mr. Phipps (Michael Clarke Duncan). Amy lives in the house with Max, her bossy, self-appointed best friend; Janet, resident goody-two-shoes and dumb girl; and Dominique, a long-legged Parisian steeped in ennui, who wears her skirts above her panty line, is never seen without a cigarette and greets overnight guests with a good-morning "Get out."
Although she's not blessed with Amy's natural gifts, Max dedicates herself fanatically to the international arch villain-fighting cause, periodically talking Amy down from the ledge of following her unstructured, noncompetitive dream. Having broken up with her lunkheaded boyfriend, Bobby (Geoff Stults), a Homeland Security agent who keeps giving her pointless mementos retrieved from exotic locations by his spook father, Amy is going through the motions of being a brilliant spy — but her heart's not in it.
Until, that is, she meets Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster), a slinky criminal mastermind whose recent plot to sink Australia was derailed just in time. Recent intelligence — and there's a lot of it, hilariously hackneyed files popping up on holographic screens while the D.E.B.S. eat breakfast at a diner — reveals that Lucy has plans to meet with a notorious female assassin later that night.
"What does a reclusive criminal mastermind want with a Russian-trained killer?" Cut to Lucy's lair, where the answer is revealed. Her ever-supportive, ever-aphoristic henchman, Scud (Jimmi Simpson), has set Lucy up on a blind date. When Lucy balks at the prospect, reflexively going to her computer to take another crack at Australia, Scud chastises her for not letting go of past romantic failures ("Love is harder than crime") and opening herself up to love.
The blind date — not to mention the D.E.B.S. stakeout — turns out to be a disaster. (Bobby is there, as well as a slew of other feds.) But a chase ensues, Amy and Lucy meet and Amy returns to the dorm with the further distinction of being the only person ever to survive an encounter with Lucy Diamond.
Lucy's subsequent courting of Amy, and Amy's understandable reticence — there's the peer pressure, the federal statutes, etc. — supply all the tension the movie needs (although there are plenty of scenes involving booby traps and the like), and is sweetly reminiscent of now-classic pop Romeo and Juliet films like "Say Anything." Brewster is particularly delightful as the down-to-earth, unassuming villain who knows her heart well enough to recognize what she wants when she sees it, and patiently sticks to her guns, though not literally, until Amy finds her way.
For a movie that depends so heavily on other movies, the best thing about "D.E.B.S." is the way it keeps purposefully dropping the hackneyed spy premise to reveal a plain-old high school comedy — and I mean that in the best, late '80s, John Hughesian sense — underneath. "This is so weird," Amy says upon first encountering Lucy, for instance. "Why aren't you killing me?"
Or my personal favorite, Scud's deadpan icebreaker with Janet when they first wind up as accidental double dates in the back seat of Lucy's car:
"Did you go to Dalton?"
Turns out she did.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and language.
Times guidelines: Teen love scenes, teen gunfights.
A Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Writer-director-editor Angela Robinson. Producers Andrea Sperling, Jasmine Kosovic. Executive producer Larry Kennar. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times