Paul Feig understands why we love Melissa McCarthy. He knows that she’s great at playing both the ill-mannered fool and the amiable straight-man. With his new action-comedy, Spy, Feig creates the perfect vehicle to showcase both sides of McCarthy while producing his most consistently-funny movie to date. A frighteningly high percentage of the gags connect, the dialogue is clever and crisp, and the supporting cast shines brightly. Feig is at the top of his game in this riotous crowd-pleaser.
Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is one of the CIA’s best and brightest agents. She finished tops in her class, is a master of observation, and her academy training video is so freakishly-brutal that her supervisor (Allison Janney) is considering uploading it to YouTube. Unfortunately, Susan lacks the go-getter mentality for field work. She’s tapped to be the eyes and ears of super-spy Bradley Fine (a very Bondian Jude Law) and quickly banished to a rodent-infested basement full of computers. Her life seems destined for underachievement and unrequited love for Agent Fine.
Then, fortune smiles on Susan… sort of. The identity of every field agent is compromised by the ultra-bitchy Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne); a Bulgarian ballbuster who’s shopping a suitcase nuke on the open market. Susan is pressed into action, with a disgruntled Jason Statham (playing the CIA’s most incompetent blowhard) tailing behind to ensure the operation’s success (or, more likely, its failure).
Of course, the plot machinations are unimportant. Who is doing what and where makes no difference as long as it’s funny, and Spy is extremely funny from start to finish. There is lot of ‘spy mining’ going on here, with writer-director Feig having fun with conventions of the genre. Susan, masquerading as the most boring woman on the planet (“I look like someone’s homophobic aunt!”), gets a gadget kit befitting her cover; including an enormous box of chloroform rags cleverly disguised as hemorrhoid wipes. People have shootouts in jetliners and dangle from helicopters. Statham practically deconstructs the entire genre in a hilarious speech depicting his various acts of derring-do (“I’ve swallowed enough microchips and shit them back out again to make a computer!”)
Spy stops short of being a parody, however, because all of its comedy comes from the characters. Watching a veteran writer like Feig construct a joke is a thing of beauty. Yes, there are actual jokes in Spy, complete with actual set-ups and actual punchlines. Even the sight gags play to huge laughs because they capitalize on character quirks and weaknesses. Though much of the better dialogue is clearly improvised (Susan’s graphic description of how she will palpate someone’s still-beating heart is particularly evocative), this is still a masterclass in comedy writing that doesn’t cut many corners for the cheap laugh.
Like contemporary and frequent collaborator, Judd Apatow, Feig has no problem with being irretrievably vulgar. Nor does he mind adding more substance to things, such as giving Susan a juicy character arc to discover her inner spy. While Apatow has a tendency to over-dramatize his themes, Feig prefers to play things with a bit more camp. Instead of harping on Susan’s desire to break from her milquetoast pedigree, he just pushes her deeper into the shadows with increasingly pathetic undercover identities. It never stops being funny, yet we can still see the sincerity shining through the silliness.
The cast is terrific. Law and Statham both shine from opposite ends of the spy spectrum. Statham demanding access to the “Faceoff machine” to disguise his identity is particularly rich. Janney, too, is superb as Susan’s gruff-but-fair boss, and Byrne is predictably epic delivering her vulgar barbs. Miranda Hart is an inspired choice to play Susan’s best friend within the Agency, though her involvement with the plot feels a bit forced at the end; as if Feig backtracked to add showcase scenes for her.
Spy is not without its flaws, of course. Like most action films not named Mad Max: Fury Road, Spy overstays its welcome by a good 5-10 minutes. When the action intensifies, particularly in the final act, the laughs slow considerably. Some of the action gags are memorable, and most of the choreography works, but it limits the chatter that McCarthy does so well. Some of the story beats, too, get overused. You can only go to the ‘saved at the last second’ well so many times before the bucket comes up dry. An argument could also be made that some of the violence is unnecessarily graphic, but Pineapple Express already opened the door on that Pandora’s Box.
Spy gives you everything you could ask from an R-rated action-comedy. It’s a pitch-perfect mix of the clever and the low-brow, and has all the makings of franchise gold for Feig and McCarthy. At the very least, it should make fans of Ghostbusters breathe a bit easier about Feig’s capabilities. In the meantime, just appreciate Spy for what it is; the perfect summer comedy to enjoy after the barbeque loses steam.