Almost thirty years ago, John Waters released a version of his absurd satire Polyester with a scratch and sniff card he called Odorama. The gimmick was a loving throwback to the 1960 film Scent Of A Mystery that was shown in Smell-O-Vision, but like most of Waters’ homages, the olfactory obnoxiousness actually fit the tone of the film. With a female protagonist cursed by an acute, almost uncanny sense of smell, a son who regularly got high on glue and a plot featuring a skuzzy porn theater and foot fetishes, those occasional whiffs of rancid putrescence were like horrifying and hilarious sniffs inside Polyester’s outlandish world. The film may not have needed Odorama, but it certainly benefitted from it. The same cannot be said for Spy Kids: All The Time In The World.
In theory, weird smells should suit a fourth installment of Spy KidsUp here. The basic story involves elementary school kids strapping on high tech gadgets to save the world alongside their talking dog. In many ways, the plot really is the PG, bigger budget answer to John Waters’ obscene tale of the Baltimore foot stomper. Unfortunately, Spy Kids: All The Time In The World never quite gets comfortable with that preposterous viewpoint. It dabbles in the unreasonable at times, but it’s too hellbent on shoehorning in what it naively considers to be real emotions to truly embrace its daffy premise. The result is an off-putting hybrid of exploding diapers and grown-up regrets. I can get on board with both of those things, just not in the same movie.
It all starts out fun enough. Marissa Wilson (Jessica Alba) is nine months pregnant, but like a good heroine in a kooky fantasy, she’s still hard at work trying to save the world from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-like villain named Tick Tock. Her water breaks mid-pursuit, but a physical trifle like that won’t stop her from completing the mission. Within minutes, the bad guy is arrested, and she’s on her way to the hospital to meet her husband Wilbur (Joel McHale). He’s not the biggest fan of his wife working so many hours as an interior decorator, but Marissa vows to give it all up to raise the baby and try to connect with her two step-children.
She’s mostly won over Cecil (Mason Cook), but Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) is a bit of a problem, both for Marissa and the film’s tone. She misses her mother and resents her father’s wife monopolizing dad’s time. In order to even the score, she employs elaborate pranks involving salad dressing and altered hair dryers. It’s like Punk’d and The Brady Bunch had a messy baby, but the tumultuous and sitcomy relationship turns a corner after Marissa offers Rebecca an unusual piece of jewelry.
The striking red heirloom is a perfect fence-mender, but regrettably, it’s also the key to stopping the Armageddon machine. Tick Tock has broken out of prison and has joined The Timekeeper, also a discarded Ninja Turtles villain, in a scheme to speed up time. Minutes now fly by like seconds, and without Rebecca’s jewelry, there’s no way to stop the clock-altering plot. With her two stepchildren in tow along with the family dog and some frank honesty about her past, Marissa sets off to once again save the world and bring her unconventional family together.
That desired resolution eventually comes but not before a slew of false endings and a deluge of backstories. Not content to just have a good time, Spy Kids: All The Time In The World goes to great lengths to manufacture problems, dramas and fixes. Apart from Cecil and that aforementioned dog, voiced by a completely wasted Ricky Gervais, nearly every character in the film addresses some sort of moral quandary. Wilbur can’t figure out how to balance his work and home life. Marissa can’t figure out how to bond with her step-kids. Rebecca can’t figure out how to get over her mother. The Timekeeper can’t figure out how to cope with his past. Even Spy Kids veterans Juni and Carmen show up in the third act to hash out their interpersonal problems. Depth is great, but when these conversations are happening two minutes after puke bags were used to disorient henchmen, they tend to feel a bit jumpy and slow.
Robert Rodriguez is a good director. He’s made some wonderful movies in the past, but focus has to be altered based on subject matter. Traditionally, it is better for characters to have heart and clearly defined reasons for their actions, but in a film as absurd as Spy Kids 4, those specifics don’t really need to waffle, alter and say something bigger about life. More is not always better, especially when it suffocates the joy that should be inherent in a project like this.
It’s not a total loss. There are a handful of scenes in Spy Kids 4 that really do work. Somewhere, hidden beneath all the forced hugs, there’s a lot of fun to be had, but ultimately, that digging just isn’t worth it, even if you do get some cool scents along the way.