So, the beginning of Spy is a little obvious. A debonair Jude Law schmoozes at a high-class party, dramatic music swells, and because of the movie’s conspicuous title we immediately know this is another riff on the Bond franchise. By feigning a Bond opening – complete with a silhouetted credits sequence – Spy appears to show its hand too early. Right when you think this is going to be yet another spy comedy that tries too hard, and achieves too little, the movie opens with a phenomenal sight gag that sets the hilarity tone quite high. Spoiling it here would be criminal. Suffice it to say, Spy understands itself and what it’s trying to accomplish.
Melissa McCarthy was a mess in 2014’s Tammy. Though, that movie wasn’t all her fault. It simply thought that McCarthy could carry it without providing any ancillary help. Here McCarthy’s awkward comedic timing and profanity-laden improvisational skills work perfectly. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who sits at a computer relaying instructions and intel to agents in the field. The agent she’s assigned to, Bradley Fine (Law), is a brash charismatic agent with deadly fighting skills and impeccable tailoring. Susan’s life in the basement of the CIA is nothing like the lavish, sexy lifestyle of a secret agent. It doesn’t stop her from dreaming though.
Through a convenient set of coincidences the plot soon requires that Susan be dispatched to the field, because the rest of the active agent covers have been blown. If you sighed heavily at that description no one would blame you. It’s not a particularly creative ploy to get McCarthy out there in the thick of the action, but it works because the comedy works. Honestly, the plot – which involves a nuclear bomb, arms dealers, diamonds, and all the rest – only serves to drive the comedy.
Since most of the comedic moments hit their target there’s no real need to understand any real reason why anything is actually happening. The fun of Spy exists in its biting dialogue exchanges and cleverly constructed sight gags, not in an ability to say, “Hey, look you know how they always do this in Bond? Well, we did it, but funnier.” You know, kind of like how Kingsman: The Secret Service, operated.
Surrounding McCarthy is a talented cast of seasoned actors that allow her the latitude to exhibit her comedic range. Jason Statham plays another CIA agent whose sole purpose is to explain how dangerous his life is, and to ridicule Susan’s perceived ineptitude while simultaneously bungling the mission – honestly, Statham just about steals the entire show. Allison Janney is her no-nonsense boss who continually gives her cover identities involving multitudes of cats. Rose Byrne is a callous arms dealer who relentlessly makes fun of the way Susan dresses. McCarthy reacts to each of these characters differently and director Paul Feig is observant enough to just let her do her thing, evidenced by the many hilarious insult-heavy diatribes that are clearly improvised for comedic effect.
Perhaps the most charming and brave aspect of Spy is that it doesn’t stoop to lowest-common-denominator humor. Tammy couldn’t help build its comedy around McCarthy’s body type. Spy plays on it subtly, but not in the ways you might think. This allows McCarthy to be more of a comedian and less of a prop. It’s a joy watching her act when she’s not confined to a perceived stereotype by lazy writing. Spy is clever about its physical humor. That’s all McCarthy needs to excel.
After watching Entourage, a movie that hideously fails the Bechdel test by existing in a world where a woman’s only purpose is to pleasure men, it was refreshing to see a movie like Spy. A movie that contains a variety of talented actresses inhabiting meaningful roles. Oh, and unlike Entourage it’s also really, really funny.