This Melissa McCarthy 007 parody serves its star well, but some nagging comedy clichés sully the fun.
Spy is built on a very cool idea. The Melissa McCarthy vehicle casts the terrific comedienne, at the height of her career, in the last role you’d think to put her in: ass-kicking, globe-trotting super spy (Jean Bond, if you will). For the most part, it succeeds, revitalizing the endlessly revisited 007 parody with some snappy comedy, an extremely compatible ensemble, and some genuine surprises that keep things moving at a speedy clip. Its biggest weakness, unfortunately, is pervading, and is one of the most infuriating clichés in modern comedy. I’ll get to that in a minute. (You’ll just have to wait a little longer and read through the rest of my review to find out what it is, Agent Whatsyername. Don’t look down…unless you enjoy the sight of sharks with freakin’ laser beams attached to their heads! Muahahahaha!!!)
Ahem. Anyway, Spy begins with McCarthy playing Susan Cooper, a CIA desk analyst who feeds remote assistance to super-suave field operative Bradley Fine (Jude Law, whose unrealized dreams of playing Bond are semi-realized here). Fine’s on a mission that goes terribly wrong when he accidentally shoots a baddie in the head while interrogating him, a shocking moment that proudly announces the movie as a full-on spoof. The bungled assignment leaves the CIA in a tight spot: the new big bad, an obnoxiously posh Brit named Rayna (Rose Byrne), has revealed that she knows the identities of every active CIA field operative, making she and her flock of henchmen virtually impossible to sneak up on.
Left without any options, CIA boss Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) sends mousy Susan out into the field to track Rayna (the only person in the world who knows the secret location of a nuclear bomb) from afar and report any activity. Naturally, Susan disregards the “from afar” part and mixes it up with Rayna and her musclebound goons across Paris, Rome, and Budapest. She’s receives help from her very own earpiece analyst, played by an endearingly klutzy Miranda Hart (she and McCarthy’s sizable height difference is a nice visual gag). As a bonus, the agency sends a handsy Italian Lothario named Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) to aid Susan, though he only seems interested in caressing her bosom.
Susan’s efforts to nab Rayna get dicey when she’s forced to go undercover and act as the bitchy Brit’s personal bodyguard. Making things worse in a hilarious way is Jason Statham, playing a cocky rogue agent with a long list of dubious war stories. He’s all bark and no bite, and his sloppiness only gets in the way of Susan’s mission, as she’s constantly having to save his ass instead of focusing on the mission at hand.
Director Paul Feig is smart to allow McCarthy to explore her range. Her comedic timing and delivery is world-class (she gives Samuel L. Jackson a run for his money when it comes to cursing people out), but she’s got dramatic chops as well, and the movie’s got enough serious beats in it (all of which McCarthy carries on her shoulders) to keep us invested in the story and the characters’ fates.
The ensemble on display perhaps isn’t the most comedically talented when taken on an individual basis, but as a collective they have shockingly effortless chemistry across the board. Statham overachieves in his role as the butterfingered, loudmouth lummox, and is arguably as funny as McCarthy. Bobby Cannavale plays a slick, international mob-boss villain; it’s a small part, but he nevertheless gave me the biggest laugh of the movie in a scene where he’s running towards a helicopter like a frightened school boy, squealing, “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!”
The best gags are set up by the inherent humor in the film’s premise. Susan’s rotating undercover identities run the gamut of middle-aged lady archetypes, from “cat lady” to “soccer mom.” In one scene, Susan giggles with excitement as she walks through a test lab full of cool, shiny gadgets she’ll get to use on her mission. To her disappointment, it’s revealed that, due to her being undercover, the only gadgets she’s able to use are disguised as stereotypical “mom products” like tampons and fungal spray.
Okay, time to lay it all out on the table: “You look like” jokes have got to be stopped. Enough already. Literally every mainstream comedy that’s come out in the past 5-7 years is chock full of them, and Spy is no exception. You know what I’m talking about. When Susan’s given a midwest-mom secret identity, she exclaims in disgust, “I look like somebody’s homophobic aunt.” When Rayna sees Susan and her earpiece buddy sitting next to each other, she says “you look like a pair of demented aunts.” When Susan sees Statham’s rogue agent wearing a ridiculous hairpiece and fake mustache as a disguise, she says, “you look like a perverted bus driver.” There are easily 20 or more jokes like this throughout the movie, and I couldn’t help but cringe as they piled up. It’s one of the cheapest trends in comedy today, its creativity level on par with the “yo momma” jokes from that insufferable Wilmer Valderrama MTV show from the mid ’00s.
Aside from only being mildly funny at best, these cheap one-liners actually do real damage to Spy. The movie’s two hours long (which feels pretty bloated for a comedy), and maybe if Feig had cut out a big portion of the mostly disposable schoolyard barbs, the movie maybe could have been cut down to a more appetizing 90-100 minutes. These jokes were a thorn in my side, and I’d be interested to see how the movie would play if Feig would just pluck it out.
Once I calmed down from my “you look like”-induced rage, I was able to clear my head and realize that, in hindsight, I had a really fun time with Spy. While Feig doesn’t reach same level of quality he did with Bridesmaids, he gives McCarthy’s talent the platform it’s deserved for a long time, and she makes the most of it. She’s pretty much irreplaceable in today’s comedy landscape, and this hopefully won’t be the last time we see her excel in a tailor-made starring role.