Silver Screen: Spy ****
SIU alumna Melissa McCarthy is incredibly talented but too often underused by filmmakers who don’t see her full potential. Despite her significant dramatic range— she’s understated and heartbreaking in last year’s Saint Vincent— too often directors push her toward high-octane buffoonery.
Not so with director Paul Feig, who appreciates her unique presence. He helped turn her into a movie star in Bridesmaids, and in the zippy new Spy he gives her the best purely comic role she’s had since.
The problem with Hollywood’s stubbornly limited perception of McCarthy is evident in the trailer for Spy, which suggests a simple genre parody far less interesting than it turns out to be. Early clips of the film suggest the running gag will be the heroine’s unsuitability for the job of superspy, and that perhaps she will succeed through confident cluelessness and a kind of divine ineptitude.
But not so. In fact, one of Spy’s best running gags is how consistently McCarthy— or in this case, her character, federal agent Susan Cooper— is underestimated.
Cooper is the office-bound partner of thick-headed secret agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a capable but dopey 007-type who owes much of his success to his high-tech guardian angel. Cooper monitors his progress via satellite, radios up-to-the-second instructions into his ear, and calls in the occasional drone strike. She’s also hopelessly infatuated with the fatuous field operative.
When the nefarious villainess Ranya Boyanov (Rose Byrne) bumps off Fine and exposes the CIA’s entire network of deep-cover agents, desk jockey Susan, an unfamiliar face in the espionage world, volunteers to go track down Boyanov.
Here’s the rub: Susan is great at it. Turns out she was a star in the academy, but her lack of confidence allowed her to settle for a supporting role. Now unleashed on a globe-hopping mission to avenge her partner and recover a stolen bomb, she’s a force of nature.
Not that anybody gives her credit. In a clever meta-commentary on McCarthy’s status in Hollywood, Susan’s CIA handlers insist on giving her increasingly unglamorous, undignified cover stories. First she’s a cat lady joining a tour group, the next a spinster frittering away the cash she made falsely filing for disabilities. Susan wants a cool code name and a slick outfit like Fine, but she’s buried beneath ugly wigs and hideous pantsuits. It’s even more refreshing, then, when she ignores her bosses, buys a sexy Italian outfit, and starts calling herself Amber Valentine.
Spy is a treat. Feig writes excellent roles for women and makes feminist comedies that never sacrifice the comedy for the feminism. Broad as it is, the movie is slyly subversive. In traditional spy movies, the women are window dressing, but here it’s the guys who are mostly here for show. Jason Statham has a hilarious turn as Agent Rick Ford, whose bravado and old-school attitude constantly blind him to the dangers around him. The great Allison Janney, meanwhile, puts a nice spin on the ball-busting supervisor. And don’t overlook Rose Byrne just because she cuts the figure of an actual Bond girl; she plays Boyanov as a kind of murderous mean girl, and it’s fantastic. Dig her mincing, arms-out run late in the movie when she tries to flee— it’s a great piece of physical comedy.
Feig comes from the Judd Apatow School of Comedy, which means that all of his movies are too long by fifteen minutes. If Spy is a little overstuffed, though, at least it’s overstuffed with good jokes. In yet another summer of endless, joyless sequels and reboots, Spy is one of the few movies that makes a strong case for a return engagement.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.