An espionage-themed love story without romance is a tough summer sell. In Diary of a Spy, the focal intelligence agent doesn’t even enjoy her work — which, to be fair, betrays the lazy “I’m very good at what I do” genre trope — nor does she pursue a genuine physical connection with her love interest/mark. Anna (Tamara Taylor) wanders through Los Angeles alone after a failed mission overseas. She almost loses everything, most notably her off-the-books government gig, but manages to land a domestic mission that could secure long-term financial safety. Anna doesn’t seem to care about the possibilities of tomorrow. The almost-retired agent even admits that she’s waiting to die. In fact, Anna doesn’t even know if she actually works for the CIA. Everything in life seems secondary to simply existing, even the companionship of a man that should theoretically drive the film’s primary conflict. The lack of an authentic love story suggests filmmaking brilliance elsewhere, or perhaps a heavy-duty lead performance that’s more about existential dread than bedroom ecstasy. But everything in Diary of a Spy is just B-movie ok. It’s fine.
With Diary of a Spy, filmmaker Adam Christian Clark seems invested in the what-if possibilities for the emotionally-damaged female protagonist. And so it makes sense to primarily explore Anna’s headspace as she tries to imagine a brighter future while building a relationship with her mark, Camden (Reece Noi), a twenty-something tutor for a Saudi princess. The social awkwardness of the main players teases a physical hook-up that might allow for a shared emotional release, yet Clark never provides a meaningful romantic moment that pushes the story forward while strengthening the character arcs. Instead, he inserts a mid-movie club scene that culminates with Camden and Anna discussing a potential dog beheading. And when Clark introduces a significant plot twist in Diary of a Spy, the figurative gap between the main characters remains. There’s beauty in their strange connection, yes, but the dialogue doesn’t afford the performers many opportunities to sell the romance. Camden says, “I might… love her [Anna]” with the detached plainness of a monotone Rami Malek character.
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Diary of a Spy abandons the cinematic flavor of the opening act. Clark begins with slick audio design and an impressive wide shot that creates a specific trouble-on-the-horizon vibe like Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012). From there, however, everything feels disjointed through the first 60 minutes. As performers, both Taylor and Noi do little to boost the focal romance. They recite explanatory dialogue that works in favor of the espionage premise yet doesn’t engage with the ethos of the characters’ world. Anna and Camden talk about escaping to Southern Italy, but how exactly would that arrangement work? One gets the sense that the more experienced of the two would disappear after the initial honeymoon excitement.
Questionable lighting devalues Diary of a Spy as a whole. This isn’t a cold film with a complementary dark aesthetic; it’s a frustrating drama that toys with dark elements in poorly-lit sequences. One may easily recognize the popular character actor Fred Melamed but have difficulty identifying Madeline Zima from Californication and Twin Peaks. Diary of a Spy gains momentum when Clark develops the focal relationship through a brightly-lit dance montage that transitions to a bedroom scene. During this late-movie section, Diary of a Spy feels more like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) than a cold spy thriller (which is a good thing). Unfortunately, though, Clark abandons the opportunity to strengthen the love story with authentic-sounding pillow talk. Diary of a Spy mostly keeps viewers in the dark; it’s unclear what makes the main characters tick. Anna and Camden are Dostoevskian figures in spirit, from a different tale, who seem lost in time.
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My biggest issue with Diary of a Spy is the nonchalant demeanors of the main characters. Anna can’t afford to be cool and detached. She can’t make mistakes when seducing Camden. And yet she’s very much chill when discussing a failed mission and a life-changing opportunity with a female superior (who, by the way, might not actually work for the CIA). There’s potential with the strange love premise, but there’s nothing in Diary of a Spy to suggest that Anna and Camden desire a sexual relationship with each other, or even a romantic relationship in general.
XYZ Films released Diary of a Spy digitally on July 14, 2022.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.