In Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, soon residing in that great third-run theater in the sky, Frankie Muniz plays the oldest 11-year-old who ever existed. He's not actually 11 in the film. He's 16. But he's treated as if he's a toothless Dickens ragamuffin who needs a hug. And yet the film wants us to picture a steely-eyed killer who spies for his country and is more worldly than the average CIA director.
The mixed signals fly faster than a NASCAR lap. We want children in kiddie flicks to be both mature and innocent, and the result has been some amazingly discordant movies (and teen pop stars, too, but that's another story). Muniz, meanwhile, gets to carry that look on his face of a child actor being asked to sit at the kid's table, just for the night, honey, so adults can talk.
Which brings us to the immortal Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, once distinguishable only by their degrees of shrillness. When we first met them they were infants on the greatest show in the world, ever and ever, Full House. They literally grew up on television. Then they passed through that awkward stage where they resembled those rubber trolls you stick on the top of pencils, but went on to become a multi-media empire.
Today they co-own a production company and have starred in 47 straight-to-video movies; Wal-Mart carries Mary-Kate and Ashley lip gloss and blow dryers; their Web site advertises Mary-Kate and Ashley beach towels and throw rugs. They sell $1 billion worth of this stuff annually.
The problem is that the brand - a.k.a. the Olsen sisters, who turn 18 next month - is growing up, and the target audience is growing old. And so now, with a handful of (moderately) provocative magazine layouts, and this new screwball comedy, Barcode - I mean New York Minute - they'd like to conquer the teen queen mountain top occupied by Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff. And that, right there, is what New York Minute is about.
Never mind this plot about twin sisters whose chemistry has run dry (and never mind, too, the irony in that). Never mind the requisite dead mother, the requisite neurotic sister, the requisite free-spirited sister. Never mind whether they will learn to appreciate each other, and land boyfriends, and rock out, in less than 90 minutes. Never mind even if you have a good time.
New York Minute is not about that. It is about, as they say in marketing parlance, extending the brand; it's about reminding us that the Olsens are individuals now: Ashley is buttoned-down Jane, off to make a speech at Columbia University; Mary-Kate is ripped-jeans Roxy, off to become a great rock drummer.
Ashley is sunny Jessica Simpson to Mary-Kate's edgy Avril. And it's like a bargain and stuff because you get two for one and everything. What's different is they look more mature now, they think more mature now, and they aren't afraid to be hip. Or at least, they aren't afraid to embrace the semblance of hip dictated by MTV and boy-band punk acts like Simple Plan (so punk that they rock out with the Olsen twins in this very movie).
They're not afraid to pretend that growing old in pop culture is less about coming of age or graduating from junior high now than leaving one demographic bracket for the next. Which, yes, is way depressing. And there's nothing necessarily shocking either about forgettable movies made for tweens. The history of kids' flicks has always been a history of exploitation and lame decisions made by clueless adults.
What's creepy about New York Minute, which was made for girls roughly between the ages of eight and twelve, is how it feels constructed by clueless, middle-aged males with dirty minds who haven't been to a movie since The Out-of-Towners - and not the Steve Martin remake, either, but the 1970 original (which feels like the prime inspiration for its frantic pace and Manhattan adventure). And meanwhile, the Olsens, who strike me as smart and very together teens, seem like totally cool with it all.
How else can you explain a subplot that involves the pirating of copyrighted CDs and DVDs to Asia, and how incredibly incensed this makes Ashley Olsen when she discovers she's unwittingly carrying a software chip that carries the dupes? Mary-Kate and Ash have moments when they're charming, expressive actresses with keen timing. But piles of pirated movies? I mean, these bad guys are no longer Chinese stereotypes with Fu Manchu voices - they're like stealing big money from the deep pockets of hard-working, brand-established millionaires.
Hey, just like the Olsens!
Not creepy enough? How about this: Within the first twenty minutes The Olsens get naked no less than three times (discreetly, with lots of tasteful over-the-shoulder camera angles). Then there's the part where the Olsens run around Times Square in hotel towels with lots of close-ups on their butts. Then the part where there's an hint of three-way with the twins. And I still haven't gotten to the part about Roxy being obsessively followed by Eugene Levy (middle-aged man, brilliant character actor, who did not get paid enough, no matter what it was). He's a J. Edgar Hoover-wannabe truancy officer who photographs her outside her home, wallpapers his apartment with her picture.
And if you can look past all that, you still have to look past The House of Bling, the black beauty parlor the girls run into in Harlem, where everyone sings and dances at the drop of a barrette. I'm not straining to be politically correct here. There isn't a recognizable human of any race in sight. But the easy way New York Minute falls back on stereotypes, not to mention dead mothers - or the way it equates maturity with being sexually available - feels sweaty and anxious to prove that the Olsens are not small screen stars, but that they make mediocre movies just like everyone else.
But then 17 is a bad age for child stars. Preciousness on the big or small screen has a hard time making that leap out of adolescence. Some attempt it, but even the biggest are often never heard from again. And for every Jodie Foster there's a Tatum O'Neal, and for every Ron Howard, there's a Macaulay Culkin. On the other hand, if New York Minute doesn't work out, I could always use a nice throw rug.