Review of “D.E.B.S.”

I’ve been following the progress of Angela Robinson‘s D.E.B.S. with interest ever since the short film it was based on debuted to much applause at Sundance a year ago and was subsequently chosen by Sony’s Screen Gem division to be turned into a feature film. It seemed unusual for a short film with such explicit lesbian content–and happy/funny lesbian content, not the usual depressing lesbian characters we find in mainstream films–to get this kind of attention from a large production/distribution company.

While Robinson assured us in an interview last year that she was not pressured by Screen Gems to tone down the relationship in the feature film (“if anything,” she said, “we worked together on the script to make the relationship more complex and intimate”), I couldn’t help wondering whether the relationship would still get eased out somehow, since there hasn’t been a comedy/action film with a decent lesbian relationship in years.

Then I wondered whether the film would even be any good, since often what’s funny in a short film doesn’t translate well to a feature-length movie (witness all of the Saturday Night Live skits that were turned into terrible features).

Fortunately, a few weeks ago at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, my questions were finally answered when I joined a sold-out crowd applauding loudly after the world-wide premiere of D.E.B.S. (scheduled to hit theaters in March, 2005).

D.E.B.S. is a comedy about a quartet of recent high school graduates-turned-government secret agents who were chosen based on their scores on a secret test embedded with the S.A.T. that measures the ability to cheat, lie, and kill (looking good in their plaid school-girl uniforms appears to be a requirement, too).

Holland Taylor plays the task-master head of the D.E.B.S. organization, and Michael Clarke Duncan has a small role as the head of the D.E.B.S. school. The leader of this particular group of D.E.B.S. is Max (played by Megan Goode of Eve’s BayouDeliver Us from Evie, and Biker Boyz), an assertive, serious young woman who works hard to keep everything running smoothly. The French-accented Dominique (Devon Aoki of 2 Fast 2 Furious) sleeps with a different guy every night and never goes anywhere without a cigarette in her mouth, while earnest Janet (Jill Ritchie, reprising her role from the short film on which the feature is based) tries desperately to prove her worth to Max.

Finally, we have girl-next-door Amy (Sara Foster, also starring in the upcoming Owen Wilson flick The Big Bounce), frequently referred to as “The Perfect Score” because she performed so well on the secret test. Amy has just broken up with her boyfriend, fellow government-agent Bobby (Geoff Stults from 7th Heaven), because she’s not in love with him, and he’s having a hard time letting go.

The D.E.B.S.’ evil arch-enemy, Lucy Diamond (played by Jordana Brewster of The Fast and the Furious), is also having a hard time getting over being dumped by a girl. A career criminal whose list of bad deeds include trying to sink Australia, Lucy is shrouded in mystery to everyone but her trusty assistant, Scud (Jimmi Simpson), since no one has ever fought Lucy and lived to tell about it.

After a funny Charlie’s Angels-type opening, the film follows the D.E.B.S. as they are assigned to secretly monitor a meeting between Lucy Diamond and a beautiful Russian assassin, Ninotchka (played by Jessica Cauffiel from Legally Blond and Legally Blond 2), who embodies every American movie stereotype of a Russian femme fatale.

Turns out, it’s not a meeting, but a blind date arranged by Scud. At dinner, Lucy figures out pretty quickly that Ninotchka’s not the one for her, but before she can end the date, shooting breaks out in the restaurant and Lucy’s on the run from the D.E.B.S.–until she runs into Amy (literally) and sparks begin to fly in a hilarious verbal exchange.

Smitten with Amy, Lucy begins to create opportunities for them to be together, despite Amy’s initial unwillingness to acknowledge her attraction to Lucy. But their mutual attraction quickly becomes obvious, and Amy sneaks away to stay with Lucy for a few days so they can spend some time together. The D.E.B.S. mistakenly believe Amy’s been kidnapped and organize a nationwide hunt to “rescue” Amy, only to find Lucy and Amy in a rather compromising position. Their relationship no longer a secret, Amy is finally forced to choose between her loyalty to the D.E.B.S. and her feelings for Lucy.

The film is full of tongue-in-cheek humor that satirizes teen films and action films at the same time. The first half of the film is especially sharp, provoking one laugh after another at everything from the over-the-top impracticality of the D.E.B.S. uniforms, to arguments between the D.E.B.S. about whether Janet got her sweater at Target, to one-liners like Max asking Amy seriously “Do you remember the first thing I said to you when we met?” and Amy responding equally seriously, “That’s my bunk, bitch?”

The film could be improved in the second half by adding more of these moments during some of the long, predictable stretches that seem to be more about moving the plot forward than satirizing it. This is partly a devil of Robinson’s own making: there are so many laugh-out-loud funny moments in the film that you notice when it’s more action than comedy.

The character of Amy could use a little more definition, as well. Robinson has stated that she created Lucy and Amy to be very complementary characters, two halves of a whole, but Amy often comes across a little, well, bland, especially in comparison to the dynamic Lucy–although perhaps that’s intentional, since Amy is supposed to be the All-American Girl type.

Fortunately, the film seems to pick up steam again at the end, lacing a semi-predictable ending with enough funny moments to make it seem fresh.

There is little else to criticize about this film, however: the editing is smooth, the production quality good, the costumes excellent, the script well-written, and the action scenes and special effects convincing (you’d never know this film was made in less than a year on a budget of $3.5 million, which in itself is an achievement).

The acting is solid overall, and all of the characters bring something unique to the story.Max, Janet, and especially Dominique serve primarily to support the Lucy-Amy storyline, but they are interesting enough characters that you can’t help hoping for a sequel to see more of them.

The real star of the film, however, is Jordana Brewster, who is going to get a lot of attention when this film hits theaters. Brewster is perfect as Lucy: confident and a little edgy, but with a hint of vulnerability and a magnetic appeal that makes Amy’s attraction to her easy to understand. The chemistry between Lucy and Amy is very good, partly because Robinson wisely doesn’t rush their courtship, and the easy banter between Lucy and Scud is very funny and adds a nice dimension to Lucy.

The sheer matter-of-factness with which lesbianism is presented in the film (even if the word itself is never uttered) is refreshing. Unlike all those other “grrl power” movies that only hint at lesbian subtext, D.E.B.S. not only makes it explicit, but embraces it as a central theme.

Although Lucy and Amy’s relationship is clearly considered “taboo” by the other characters, this isn’t because they’re both women, but because the two women are on opposite sides of the law (and because Amy has never indicated an interest in women before).

Beneath all the satire and short skirts is a humorous coming-out story with a happy ending that will appeal to viewers of all sexual orientations because it’s entertaining first and foremost. Straight boys and men will see it because, hey, hot girls with guns who make you laugh, and women and girls (both gay and straight) will see it for…well, the same reason, really.

This film ultimately succeeds because it can be different things to different viewers: to lesbian and bisexual viewers, a lesbian love story in teen-movie clothing; to straight teen and young adult viewers, a funny teen movie with a twist. Fundamentalist conservatives are likely to see it as another sign that Western civilization is going to hell in a handbasket, but this will only make it more popular with teens and a winner at the box office (that the film was recently granted a rare PG-13 rating makes its success even more likely).

D.E.B.S. won’t win any Oscars, but it doesn’t need to–it’s a funny, well-written, entertaining film, and one that just might do on the big screen what The L Word has done on TV: destigmatize lesbianism, and show the world that cinematic lesbian relationships can be just as much fun as heterosexual ones.