director: Paul Feig; screenplay: Paul Feig
starring: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney and Jude Law
The thing that most immediately surprised me about the most recent Paul Feig Melissa McCarthy collaboration (the third after Bridesmaids and The Heat) is how much it lives up to its indicated genre. Spy is billed as an action comedy and it is the rare one of its kind that is legitimately invested in both the comedy and action aspects of that paradigm. The second most surprising aspect is how earnest the entire affair is. Susan Cooper is a CIA analyst devoted to guiding her partner, active agent, Bradley Fine (deliberately named like something out of a William Wycherley Restoration comedy) while on a mission in Bulgaria. The especially dapper Fine is the object of Susan’s attraction, something he blindly seems not to realise. Things come to head when a follow up to the Bulgaria missions sees Bradley making a fatal error, ending up indisposed. With the secrecy of all field agents compromised, formerly desk-bound Susan makes her foray into the world of active spying, and the film launches into its central arc – Susan Cooper in a series of ridiculous get-up trying to prove her reliability as a spy as she tries to avenge her co-worker.
That brings us to the least surprising aspect of Spy – Melissa McCarthy is fantastic in it.
For all the twists which the final quarter of the film launches into, Spy is a very straightforward story. There is no B plot here to complement the main plot. The main plot is responsible for the action and the comedy which sees undervalued Susan trying to prove to her superiors that she can fulfil the mission. It’s a credit to Feig’s writing skills that the comedy manages to eke out naturally from the action status quo. The earnestness of the CIA focus in the film becomes curious when one considers how the CIA has been progressively demystified both by news media and the general entertainment landscape recently with shows like Showtime’s Homeland and FX’s The Americans.
In fact, Spy’s pro bureaucracy tone makes it almost a curio from a decade gone by. But like James Bond’s spy politics, Spy’s political ideology is, at best, delightfully imaginary. Henchmen from Eastern European countries with deliberately untraceable accents, a world terrorism plot, America as the centre of the world with access to every nook and cranny in Europe. Still, this is the sort of hand-waving you allow for an action film, and even more for one that works like Spy does. The opening is such a fine microcosm of a bond film; it feels less a parody and more a celebration. It’s also one of the most confident set pieces of the film. Film enthusiasts might recall after Pierce Brosnan’s Bond-retirement Jude was one of the umpteen names tossed around as potential replacements*. That never happened, Spy presents us with the closes thing we have to that alternate universe. If we get too little of Law in the film (his opening chemistry with McCarthy is wonderful), it is impossible to complain when it is replaced with an even superior pairing – that of Byrne and McCarthy, a wonderfully capable female duo.
Byrne plays the diva daughter of a deceased crime lord whose camp Susan infiltrates for revenge. Byrne’s impressively subtle work is a key to the film. The role in reality is particularly bizarre and outlandish but she opts for piquant instead of aggressive in her delivery. It’s indicative of intelligent comedic timing that she purrs her already funny lines in a way that makes the audience wait for it. She knows she’s holding a winning hand, so there is no need to overplay it. Quickly showing herself to be one of the more versatile comedic performers right now. The film increases its moment when she arrives on scene opposite McCarthy. It's the first of the Feig/McCarthy partnerships which sees her playing the roundest character and with the fullness that a truly realised character like Susan Cooper provides, there are immediately less bust-a-gut-a-laugh-out-loud moments. It would be misguided to equate the less ostensibly funny role with a step down for McCarthy. She is the film's centre. Spy offers her a role more worthy of her talents than the one-note-foul-mouthed-harridan popular audiences might equate her with. True, much of her work here is reactionary. But, this is excellent reaction mixed with excellent timing. Anyone familiar with her from her almost decade long work on Gilmore Girls would need no proof that McCarthy can do nuance, but Spy proves it on a big screen and a larger scale. More importantly, with a nuanced McCarthy at its centre Spy accomplishes his dream of making a female action comedy. It’s not just Byrne and McCarthy, but with bit parts from Alison Janney, Moren Baccarrin and Miranda Hart Spy has its women on its mind. (Jason Statham’s is hilariously overstated as a particularly irate field agent, Bobby Cannavale is less so as a European terrorist).
Spy skids along in some moments, but the whole is an impressively confident piece. It feels like a victory for the summer box-office for women and for McCarthy. It does not skimp on the action to deliver a hilarious comedy, and it does not try to negate its own feminist merits to present a film that’s legitimately interesting in its action mode. Feig’s films still have a tendency to come off as shaggy dogs, a bit too unformed to be perfect, and always ten minutes longer than they ought to be but Spy works. As a comedy, as an entertaining action romp, and as a star vehicle for McCarthy. It’s easily the best film vehicle she has been given. Now, maybe a writer/director other than Feig can realise this an give her the platform she deserves.
*How would a Jude Law Bond have affected the universe?