In her first true, top-billed starring role, Melissa McCarthy teams up with Bridesmaids and The Heat director Paul Feig in spoof film Spy – an entertaining outing that breaks more ground in recent female representation on film. She’s more than up to the task, bringing humour and physicality to her role. It’s also a different McCarthy than casual viewers may be familiar with; the crassness of her celebrated Bridesmaids performance gives way to her wit and sweetness and vulnerability, making her an extremely empathetic and likable protagonist. But as we celebrate another big budget film starring McCarthy, a woman outside the traditional specifications for Hollywood actresses, it’s hard not to be concerned McCarthy might stay as the exception to the rule rather than one who shatters it; sadly it’s hard to think of another actress that has benefited from her success, and she seems to risk being treated as a special attraction by Hollywood, a proven commodity, rather than a signal of change.
McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA agent who acts as the eyes and ears of field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a James Bond clone who she secretly admires. After he is taken out of action investigating arms dealer Boyanov (McCarthy’s Bridesmaids co-star Rose Byrne), and top agent Rick Ford’s (Jason Statham) identity has been uncovered, Cooper is sent to Europe where she sees action for the first time and finds herseld in increasingly embarrassing disguises, one of the film’s most rewarding running jokes.
The set up is a bit clunky, and the premise sort of misleading – the film’s high concept pull is a pretty well-worn one, that McCarthy is a bumbling, inexperienced agent with no business being in dangerous situations, something the trailers play on highly. But in actual fact she is presented as often a very capable agent – perceptive, quick-thinking and incredibly adept at hand-to-hand combat. This isn’t just a problem with the film’s marketing, but rather a tension that hinders the film as it tries to hedge its bets on its leading player – one scene will play her incompetence for laughs, and the next will show her incredible skills in some visceral, well choreographed fight scenes. This uneasy balancing act doesn’t derail Spy, and once again is testament to McCarthy’s gifts as a physical performer, but it means that scenes like Cooper falling off a scooter work on their own merits, but cause a dissonance of sorts for the viewer over the film’s runtime.
Spy, then, works as film of two halves – action and comedy. They don’t always mesh well overall, but each is done quite capably. Early scenes with an office-bound Cooper are really funny, including some great self-depracating conversations with co-worker Nancy (British sit-com star Miranda Hart) and a bizarre running gag of the CIA office being overrun by various animal infestations. As we inevitably get further into the thriller territory it does lose some steam; it assumes the genre tropes rather than upends them, as best exemplified by the mixed bag of supporting performances. Jude Law looks so comfortable in his Pierce Brosnan impression that it almost feels like we’re waiting for the other foot to drop, but it’s a mostly straight archetype that is saved by his charisma in his limited appearances. The other genre supporting characters, save for Rose Byrne’s captivating performance as the main antagonist, are likewise uninspired (Bobby Cannavale’s Italian villain) or exasperating stunt casting (Allison Janney as the Department head); the long stretches in the middle of the film between McCarthy and Byrne are some of the strongest parts of the film. Jason Statham will perhaps be the eye-opener for many, bending over backwards to subvert his own screen image as the bumbling, obnoxious fellow agent. His comic timing needs some work and he gets the most laughs when others joke at his character’s expense, but most preview audiences reacted more strongly than this reviewer, and he certainly commits to his scenery chewing. It’s also of note that this is the second film this year (after Furious 7) where his character spends most of the film globe-trotting and popping up with the main characters at the most inconvenient times; a very specific form of typecasting that I’m totally okay with.
With so many comedies, you can add a critical equivalent of a “TL;DR” that can be the most important part of a review – whether or not the film is funny. And Spy is. The spy story at its heart doesn’t quite commit to being a spoof of the genre and will feel by-the-numbers for many, though it’s redeemed by Byrne’s presence and some surprisingly well-crafted action sequences, leading to some memorable scenes of McCarthy shocked by some quite graphic violence, which are some of the best moments. But the humour of Feig’s screenplay and McCarthy’s performance are what the film will be remembered for – in a genre that has historically needed more female representation and humour, Spy feels like a welcome shot in the arm.