Spy is not the movie I thought it was, and for that, I am thankful. I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with Melissa McCarthy career. I thoroughly enjoyed her breakout role in Bridesmaids, if nothing else, because it was quite something to see Gilmore Girls‘s Sookie be so aggressively crude and vulgar. Ever since that Academy Award-nominated performance, McCarthy has become one of our biggest comedic movie stars, but her vehicles have revolved around her playing despicable characters who are little more than the female equivalent of the immature man-child that has exhausted American comedy since the mid-2000s. The marketing campaign for Spy made it seem like it would be another story of McCarthy playing a tough-as-nails, doesn’t-give-a-fuck comedic psycho that would inexplicably save the day and win our hearts by the end of the movie. Spy is so much more than that.
I think nobody is more enchanted by McCarthy’s comedic gifts than director Paul Feig. He directed her in Bridesmaids, and gave her a lead role in his follow-up The Heat. An important difference between Spy and those previous McCarthy-Feig collaborations, is that this is the first time Feig has written a screenplay for McCarthy, and he has clearly tailored the movie to his muse’s talents. McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who sits in a Virginia basement and speaks into the earpiece of super spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is shockingly killed in action, and the identities of all CIA agents become compromised, Susan volunteers to go undercover and keep an eye on the arms dealer in possession of a deadly nuclear device.
One of the great things about Spy is that Susan Cooper is not what we have come to expect from a typical Melissa McCarthy character. She is not oblivious and grotesque, but an incredibly competent woman. She has the chops to be one of the CIA’s biggest spies, but she is stuck behind a desk because she does’t look like one. Instead of going undercover as a mysterious, elegant businesswoman, she is ordered to disguise as a depressed cat lady vacationing around Europe. Instead of cool gadgets, she gets a chewable antidote disguised as stool softener. People don’t really know Susan, they just assume she is the person they imagine her to be. Coming out of an industry that mercilessly judges women by the way they look, Spy sports quite a subversive message.
We often criticize Hollywood’s idea of representation. We complain about the lack of queer, black, latino, or asian characters. How come such a diverse country is so lily-white on screen? The same can be said about body types. Most people in America don’t look like Charlize Theron, they look like Melissa McCarthy. Why, then, do the movies insist on making us laugh at her? Spy is one of the first McCarthy movies that asks us to identify with her, and it works beautifully. McCarthy is not only a hilarious comedian, but a terrific actress. She can act tough and throw around funny insults if needed, but Susan remains a deeply humane and decent person at heart. This is McCarthy’s best role, and she delivers with one of the best comedic star-turns in recent memory.
And talking about memorable star-turns, Spy is full of great supporting roles. Law is effectively debonaire and quite funny in a dinner scene in which his character is completely oblivious to Susan’s feelings for him. Meanwhile Jason Statham isn’t afraid of being ridiculous as a tough CIA agent, and British comedienne Miranda Hart gets some really funny lines as Susan’s best friend and colleague. The clear stand-out in the supporting cast, however, is the magnificent Rose Byrne, who thanks to her effortless delivery, has emerged as one of the most invaluable comedic actresses of our time. Let’s just say she carves the name of her character, Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov, into the pantheon of glamorous diva villains.
Like most comedic spoofs, the plot of Spy is fairly familiar Although Feig has crafted a pretty solid conspiracy plot, the movie’s biggest pleasures don’t come from the plotting. Based on his previous directorial jobs, we would expect Spy to be heavy on the scripted jokes, but Feig shows himself to have grown quite substantially as a visual story-telling since The Heat. There are quite a few clever visual gags in Spy (although most of the movie’s comedy is still verbal), and while the chase sequences are a little generic, Feig proves to be a surprisingly effective action filmmaker. A fight sequence that takes place in a kitchen is especially good, one of the best of the year, and miles ahead of the pre-fabricated action set pieces of most blockbusters.
With its extraordinary cleverness, Spy joins the magnificent Mad Max Fury Road and the flawed but undoubtedly idiosyncratic Tomorrowland in what is shaping up to be a summer of surprisingly personal and adventurous movies.
Grade: 8 out of 10