I was one of those people, not small in number, who rather liked Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids, and then one of those, somewhat lesser in number, who also got a kick out of the less impressive, but still quite funny, The Heat, which shared a director and a leading lady. Melissa McCarthy has managed to carve out a niche for herself in Hollywood beyond the rather tepid TV offering of Mike and Molly, and more power to her. She’s a brilliant performer, and works well with Feig, which has led to this. Even in my relatively short life, I’ve seen a large amount of spy spoofs, from Spy Hard to Austin Powers. Could the, by now very reliable, Feig/McCarthy combination keep the quality coming and bring some laughs to a somewhat done sub-genre, with a surprisingly awesome cast along for the ride?
Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is a shy, reserved CIA analyst, tasked with aiding the glamorous and deadly adventures of field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) from behind a desk. When Fine gets into trouble, Cooper, aided by fellow analyst Nancy (Miranda Hart), crude Italian informant Luca (Peter Serafinowicz) and clownish action-obsessed agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), volunteers to enter the field herself to complete his mission, and maybe enact a little payback on a spoilt socialite turned arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne).
I don’t know what it is really, that makes me so surprised that Spy is a good, even great, comedy film. Maybe it’s the way that it’s part of this newer genre of foul-mouthed yet sentimental American comedies that grate in other instances, maybe it’s that McCarthy has had her share of comedic duds (with other directors), maybe I didn’t think the Spy would be able to wring anything else out of the espionage spoof idea. Even with the avalanche of positive reviews (an astonishing 95% on RT from nearly 150 reviews, making Spy one of the most critically acclaimed comedies of recent times), I still had an inkling that I would be left disappointed.
But that inkling disappeared very early in Spy, right around the time that Jude Law’s amazingly effective Bradley Fine, a Pierce Brosnan-style Bond agent taken to the extreme edge of douchebaggery, inadvertently assassinates the only man who knows where a suitcase nuke is, because he forgot to take his allergy medication. From there, I was relaxed into the experience, and enjoy a surprisingly brilliant satire of the spy/thriller/action genres.
Spy has this really odd but endearing mix of genuine espionage story-telling, ribald humour and serious drama turns, and while another director and leading woman might have botched that confluence, Feig and McCarthy make it work to an extent that would surprise even the most ardent critic. The plot is boiler plate enough, but you could actually strip away the jokes and have a competent thriller, albeit one that wouldn’t stay very long in the memory. The dangerous mission, the exotic locations, the fight scenes and the dramatic finale, they all find their place in Spy. Making that actually substantial are the action scenes which, while containing a fair share of slapstick and other silly elements, are actually rather, well bad-ass, most notably when Cooper confronts an enemy agent in a kitchen. Feig can actually shoot decent action it seems, with fight choreography that is as noteworthy as it is properly inserted into the narrative.
But of course, nobody is coming to see this with the attention of enjoying a genuine spy thriller, they are coming for the jokes. And they come thick and fast. What’s remarkable is how different varieties of laughs are introduced one after the other, never detracting from the others. Funny wordplay, inadvertently derogatory comments, physical humour, gross-out jokes, larger-than-life caricatures, foul-mouthed insult rants, even some material that could be charitably described as racist, Spy has them all. This is a spoof where the CIA is infested with both rats and bats, whose presence barely derails the office birthday party, even as field agents face life or death.
Unsubtle talk of crazy cat ladies turns to traditional slapstick turns to inappropriate projectile vomiting, turning to crude sexual innuendo, turning to action hero pisstakes. And where some different production might have struggled under this weight, and produced something that seemed schizophrenic, the way that Spy takes its main plot somewhat seriously actually allows this broad range of humour to be more effective, like it is all brought together under this encompassing blanket, which adds an additional layer of satire to proceedings. But credit must go to Feig, a comedic director who has long since proven that he can play around with different elements, bringing them together in harmony when possible.
McCarthy’s Cooper is the crucial element. She actually has a decent character journey to go on amid all of the hilarity, which speaks vividly to the plight of women in such professions as the CIA, and in the world generally. Spy isn’t afraid to bring McCarthy’s physical appearance into the equation, in fact it did so with gleeful abandon, but it isn’t accomplished lazily, instead becoming a thing to discuss hidden talents, perception based prejudice against women in society and how women of McCarthy’s age and appearance do not get enough opportunities, be it in life or on the big screen. And, unlike other films (like, say, Identity Thief), McCarthy is no clown in Spy, she’s the creator of jokes, not the butt of them (mostly). Spy could have been a case of “Hey, look at this overweight middle-aged woman try and be a spy, ha!”, but instead it’s more “Look at this under-appreciated kick-ass woman deal with the parade of morons around her”).
Sure, there is a maudlin love angle to the whole thing, with Cooper seeking to avenge Fine due to an unrequited attraction that dominates her thinking, but this also unexpectedly works, maybe because Feig and McCarthy take the time to both poke fun at this, and to treat it with due seriousness, as Cooper routinely struggles to get things together out in the field, though she rises to the occasion when called upon.
The emphasis on female characters – the lead, her boss, the side-kick and the central antagonist are all played by women here, and that is fantastic: it really does wonders for the film, punching through any staleness it might have carried from the bloated sub-genre it inhabits. The posters might depict suave looking male spies while McCarthy stumbles around them, but the actual film is the complete opposite.
In focusing on women in the intelligence world, Feig finds new avenues for humour, and talents to showcase in an environment they might not be used to. It’s a delight to see Allison Janney as an abrasive but unworldly mobile CIA head, it’s fun to see Miranda Hart, a great comedic talent in her own right, get a juicy role alongside McCarthy, and it’s awesome to see Rose Byrne, so great to watch in Bridesmaids, back in such an out there part as the conceited self-obsessed Rayna.
It’s just so refreshing to see women play such a gigantic part in a traditionally male dominated sort of film, with the male characters, Fine, Ford and Aldo, all being idiots of various descriptions, very much the supporting players. And they do great in those roles – Statham’s Ford in particular, is a great pastiche of the more modern Bourne super-spy archetype, turning up in just the right intervals to be effective – but I can’t overstate enough how important, and how much to the credit of Spy, is the dominance of the female characters. Different shades of strong female character show up throughout, with little hint of sexist portrayals, unless that is the actual joke being made. For that reason alone, Spy is a film worth praising.
There isn’t a bad performance to be had here. McCarthy had paid her dues and now become one of the most recognisable comedic actors in Hollywood, and Spy is probably her best film to date. She’s great in the leading role, quietly but gradually moving from mousy attendant to ass-kicking spy extraordinaire, showcasing much of her range in the process. It’s funny when she’s playing the beaten down assistant, it’s funny when she tries to stand up to her boss, it’s funny as she stumbles into the spy role, it’s funny when she takes on this bitterly insulting persona, it’s funny all the way to the end. McCarthy takes the audience on a spin with her performance, and sells every line, moment of humour and serious section with aplomb.
Jason Statham is nominally the next billing, but he’s really just a sort of occasional insert, but no less effective for it. Statham must have been having a ball with Rick Ford, a deliberate play on many of the characters he has become famous for playing. His complete cluelessness, “heart-rending” monologues of how everyone he loves ends up getting shot and repeated “You are going to fuck this up” all mark him out as a comedic gem. Jude Law’s fine is a different kind of spy send-up, and while Law doesn’t get the screentime of the others, he’s a well-played satire of the more traditional Bond-type secret agent.
The others are all great too. Janney, who I haven’t seen much of since The West Wing, is biting and funny as Cooper’s boss, who moves from harshly criticising her to trying to get her to move up the ladder (what a great moment, the archive video of Cooper’s training days). Miranda Hart could have been an irritating addition, but her genuineness, ability to play terrified in a way that is funny and the manic energy she brings to every scene, remove any such possibilities. And Byrne is wickedly spiteful and poisonous in every utterance, even as her Bond girl construction takes ever more ridiculous turns. Her chemistry and back and forth with McCarthy is so well played as they insult each other constantly, be it weird hair styles or inappropriate comparisons to an older generation.
Throw a whole heap of other great performers – Bobby Cannavale, Peter Serafinowicz (Oh God, his last scene), 50 Cent, Morena Baccarin (automatically making Spy better because of the Firefly effect, don’t judge me) – and you get the picture of a great ensemble having a lot of fun making a very humorous movie.
It helps that the script is of such top quality. Whether it is just once off jokes – “I look like someone’s homophobic aunt!” Cooper riffs as she is sent out into the field in a succession of terrible secret identities – or the recurring kind – the CIA’s rodent problem for example – Feig’s script has a joke for every minute, switching things up at a constant rate so that the viewer is never left feeling like things have gotten stale.
Cooper threatens to insert her fists up either end of a henchmen and “play your heart like an accordion” to which, the cherry on top, he can only reply by insisting he’s not crying. Ford elaborates on his devil-may-care, and presumably invented, lifestyle describing how “I drove a car onto a moving train, while on fire, and I don’t mean the car was on fire” while also suggesting he use “the Face/Off machine” to change his identity. The CIA’s version of “Q” hands Cooper gadgets disguised as stool softener and haemorrhoid wipes, then prophases he’ll never see her again. Bradley Fine suggests Cooper head home to her cats, when told she doesn’t have any replies “Oh? I don’t know why I pictured that. Maybe you should get some, they’re great company”. The villain threatens New York in the most diabolical way imaginable: “This nuke will be dropped in New York City by next week. So if you haven’t seen ‘Phantom’…”. Cooper’s taxi ride to her Parisian hotel takes her into darker and darker territory, hilariously noted by the public oral sex being performed just outside the car.
Feig finds a way to insert humour at every moment, a talent that is making him, more and more, into a sort of American Edgar Wright, throwing away the straight/fall guy dynamic and instead allowing his characters to have a bit of both in all of them, even as they smash into each other in scene after scene of clever verbal sparring – and plenty of scenes of brutal verbal crudeness.
There’s only so much that I can really say about a comedy. Beyond being engaging or making you want to come back for a sequel, comedy films really do have just the one primary goal, and that’s to make the audience laugh, for a significant amount of the running time. Spy performs admirably in that regard, which is really the only metric I can judge it by that is worth a damn. Sure it’s got a decent character arc and role for McCarthy, the kind she so richly deserves, a good supporting cast, competent direction and a good spy film feel. But it is in the script, and the comic timing and performances of the cast, that Spy succeeds where it really matters. “Laugh a minute” is an apt description here. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).