Spy is a very good showcase for Melissa McCarthy and another successful collaboration between her and director Paul Feig.
Spy stars Melissa McCarthy as Susan Cooper, an intelligent but overlooked desk-bound CIA analyst who is the guiding force behind one of the organization’s best field agents, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). However, when Fine’s latest mission goes wrong, and the identities of the CIA’s top agents are compromised, Susan sees her chance to shine and convinces her boss (Allison Janney) to let her go undercover and gather information on a missing nuclear weapon.
Susan then sets out to track down Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), the daughter of the (now deceased) arms dealer who has gotten ahold of a nuclear device, and the only living person who knows where her father hid it. Can Susan maintain her cover and fool Rayna, before the rogue weapon is sold to the highest bidding terrorist?
Director Paul Feig worked alongside Melissa McCarthy on the hit comedies Bridesmaids and The Heat, but Spy is their first collaboration to feature McCarthy as solo headliner. McCarthy starred in comedies before (Identity Thief and Tammy), but Spy is easily the best McCarthy vehicle to date, and it brings out the strengths of her co-workers, too.
The Spy premise is that of a James Bond movie told from Moneypenny’s perspective, creating a film that parodies the 007 franchise, yet also works as a proper blend of action and comedy on its own terms. Feig’s script deftly zeroes in on (and ridicules) the fantasy aspects of the male spy action hero sub-genre, especially with its characterization of agents played by actors like Jude Law and Jason Statham (more on them later). However, there are still plenty of great jokes (including moments of brutally cartoonish violence) derived from the various fist-fights and chase sequences that break out along the way.
Spy isn’t as sharp a spy genre parody as it aspires to be; its real strength is the commentary it provides on how people (men and women) judge by appearances – be it in the workplace or society at large. Susan develops throughout the course of the story, but Feig’s screenplay doesn’t subscribe to the stereotypical Hollywood approach to female empowerment, or the idea that women kicking butt is the solution to the world’s gender issues. McCarthy is given material here that allows her to deliver a multi-faceted performance as Susan – excessively self-effacing one moment, letting out pent-up rage in the next – while participating in plenty of jokes that mock the people around Susan for how they perceive her (as opposed to making fun of Susan’s looks and/or body size).
Spy boasts Feig’s best cinematic directorial work to date, with regard to how the film comically imitates the aesthetics of a typical globe-trotting spy adventure (in terms of production design and camera shots). However, even with the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman on hand (Wes Anderson’s longtime collaborator) Feig hasn’t fully evolved beyond being a TV director first. The majority of Spy is scenes featuring talking heads, and the film doesn’t reach the level of sophisticated visual action/comedy style that you would find in a similar genre parody by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie, 22 Jump Street). Very funny dialogue (a combination of Feig’s writing and improv, no doubt) and a cast largely talented in the art of physical comedy help make up for Feig’s shortcomings when it comes to staging various action scenes and set pieces.
McCarthy delivers plenty of heart as Susan Cooper, while excelling at many different forms of comedy in Spy, whether the sequence in question is a weird conversation, or a fight with trained assassins. Rose Byrne (and her elaborate hairdo) also delivers the comedy goods in a role that cleverly satirizes the international femme fatale archetype from James Bond movies. Jude Law effectively pokes fun at his handsome leading man screen persona – but the real scene-stealer among McCarthy’s male costars is Jason Statham, who, as the increasingly unhinged Agent Rick Ford, has a lot of fun subverting his unstoppable action hero screen image (and mocking his most ridiculous onscreen stunts from previous films).
Actor/writer Miranda Hart (Miranda, Call the Midwife) enjoys a handful of shining moments in Spy as Susan’s co-worker and friend (as well as fellow put-upon member of society), Nancy B. Artingstall. Peter Serafinowicz (Guardians of the Galaxy) is also very entertaining as Aldo, a carefree informant and Italian wannabe playboy who helps (and harasses) Susan (basically, he’s Pepé Le Pew in human form). Spy‘s supporting cast is rounded out by noteworthy character actors (Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, Morena Baccarin) who get limited screen time, but make the best of the material they’re offered. There are even some surprise cameos from celebrities along the way.
Spy is a very good showcase for Melissa McCarthy and another successful collaboration between her and director Paul Feig. The movie has many of the same flaws as The Heat and Bridesmaids, but makes up for that by incorporating solid action/comedy material into the “formula” of those films. The result is a spy-action parody that’s smart, but also leaves plenty of room for comical shenanigans both high-brow and low-brow in nature. This flick may even get holdouts to jump aboard the McCarthy and Feig bandwagon, before the duo return with the Ghostbusters reboot in 2016.
Spy is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 120 minutes long and is Rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity.