[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 SXSW Film Festival; Spy opens today.]
Perhaps it isn’t fair to judge a movie before giving it a chance, but it’s hard to look at a new Melissa McCarthy comedy without assuming it’s just more of the same. However, while Spy does respect what made McCarthy such a sensation to begin with, it certainly doesn’t lean on it. Susan Cooper doesn’t just find herself in crazy situations and resort to random zany behavior. She’s a strong, capable woman who earned the opportunity to do something different, making the fish-out-of-water humor especially effective.
Susan is a desk-bound CIA agent who assists the super suave Bradley Fine (Jude Law) while he’s on flashy missions in exotic locations. However, when the CIA comes to learn that the identities of all of their field agents have been compromised, Deputy Director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) has no choice but to send in a complete unknown to track down a nuclear weapon. In hopes of finally living her dream and become an amazing spy, Susan jumps at the opportunity.
Spy is a big step back in the right direction for McCarthy. Whereas her character in Tammy is a bumbling loser who’s only able to turn things around after she has a movie star makeover, Susan is extremely capable the moment you meet her. Obviously the movie does have some fun with the fact that Susan is stuck behind a desk in a bat-infested office while the modelesque Bradley Fine is taking out bad guys James Bond-style, but it never belittles the fact that Susan is a talented agent. As Fine himself points out, he couldn’t do his job without Susan’s support and knowing that requires the viewer to take her more seriously than McCarthy’s more inept characters.
The mission to stop arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) from selling a nuke to the villainous DeLuca (Bobby Cannavale) isn’t particularly exciting (especially if you don’t get the joke), but the gags are so smart, effective and well-woven into the story that the humor actually winds up elevating the narrative. Giving Susan an unappealing cover like Carol Jenkins, a single mother of four who walks around with a bag full of hemorrhoid cream, isn’t a one-and-done joke. Susan plays the part, uses her alias-appropriate gadgets like the toe fungus/pepper spray and then, when she sheds that identity and moves on to the next, it signifies a step forward for the character.
This is McCarthy’s show and she carries the film exceptionally well, but Spy is also brimming with unforgettable supporting characters. Every time I see Byrne hit it big in a comedy, I always think back to Get Him to the Greek and how great it is that she’s stuck with the genre since. She’s certainly got a knack for playing entitled antagonists. Law is clearly having a blast as Bradley Fine, but Jason Statham goes above and beyond as a begrudged field agent who’s furious that he’s being benched only so that Susan can go out and screw up the mission. He’s a super serious, all-business kind of guy, but he also takes a really juvenile approach to dealing with his competition and the contrasting behavior is endlessly amusing. Miranda Hart also makes quite the impression as Susan’s “basement” colleague and best friend, Nancy. She doesn’t know much about being out in the field and is guilty of her fair share of goofy behavior, but her dedication to Susan makes her an especially lovable agent.
For anyone who’s had enough of McCarthy’s shtick, be sure to give Spy a chance. Minus a somewhat convoluted and confusing ending, Paul Feig’s put together a solid script that’s absolutely overloaded with quality humor. I spent a good deal of the movie trying to scribble down epic one-liners, but they’re coming at you at such a rapid fire pace and so many of them are winners that a second viewing closer to the film’s wide release in June will be a must.
Feig also does an excellent job making the film feel big. Spy spends a good deal of time poking fun at the Bond franchise, and the genre in general. No, the stunts aren’t as elaborate as what we get in those films, but Feig certainly steers clear of cheap and hokey territory, and delivers action that’s truly intense yet tone-appropriate.