20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by Paul Feig. Produced by Paul Feig, Jesse Henderson, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping. Music by Theodore Shapiro. Photographed by Robert Yeoman. Edited by Mellisa Bretherton, Brent White. Production designed by Jefferson Sage. Costumes designed by Christine Bieselin Clark. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jude Law, Peter Serafinowitz, Morena Baccarin.
In the years since she stole scenes in Bridesmaids and made herself a Hollywood comedy player, Melissa McCarthy has had an uneven time of it. Many of the projects she picks don’t seem to know how to use her, even the movies that she has produced herself (recent misfires include Identity Thief and Tammy). Spy, McCarthy’s newest, is her reunion with Paul Feig, who directed Bridesmaids, and then in The Heat served McCarthy and Sandra Bullock with fully-dimensional (and funny) female characters to inhabit. In Spy, McCarthy and Feig top their success in two areas: creating a solid, fleshed-out comic persona for McCarthy…and then constructing a superb comedy for her to be in. Despite its generic title and misleading ad campaign, Spy is a delight: inventive, ambitious, and very funny.
It’s also smart in the way it uses McCarthy’s genuine comedic skills and even subtly plays off her image, as she is a woman constantly beset by the way other people perceive her. She plays a mousy CIA technician named Susan Cooper, who, via a high-tech Bluetooth, operates as the eyes and ears of superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law, having fun as a walking 007 parody). Fine, who is a little dim, sees himself and Cooper as an inseparable team, so much so that his support caused Cooper to hamstring her own promising career as a field agent so that she can stay attached to Fine in the Langley basement. A colossal threat posed by a Hungarian heiress/terrorist (Rose Byrne), however, forces Cooper to actually go into the field, where she’s given a cover identity packed with stealth insults (she’s a cat lady with gadgets disguised as fungal ointments and stool softeners). But as she gets deeper into her assignment (and goes inevitably off-plan), she finds she must reinvent herself again and again just to stay alive, to say nothing of stopping the bad guys.
McCarthy is terrific in Spy, tapping into the heroine’s lovable insecurities in ways that keep her grounded. Her Susan is aware of her own sadness, and has an uneasy relationship with the fact that her simpatico partnership with Fine has left her a forgotten CIA fixture. She wears her false identities with resignation, them being supplied to her by people who are, whether they know it or not, dedicated to underestimating her. She’s a competent agent: fluent in languages, able to spot a setup, good at manipulating people, able to read a situation quicker than a foe can. When she goes over-the-top, she’s desperate to protect or replace her cover, not because she’s someone who is too aware that they’re in a comedy. That makes her material much funnier, because it extends from a fully-realized character, even the scenes where she’s constantly riffing on her surroundings feel like a defense mechanism, not improv gone wild.
But McCarthy is assisted by an unbelievably good support team in Spy. Allison Janney plays her dry boss, who has as little use for Cooper as anyone (“Women,” she sniffs disdainfully after learning about Cooper’s self-denial and lack of confidence). Jason Statham is hilarious as Rick Ford, a disdainful agent who goes rogue to follow Cooper, berating her as a screwup while regaling her with endless tales of what a great spy he is (which sound like him drunkenly summarizing deleted scenes from Jason Statham movies). Peter Serafinowitz plays a friendly (too friendly) agent of vague European descent who is more Pepe Le Pew than James Bond. The lovable Miranda Hart plays Cooper’s gal pal, who also finds herself surprised by how capable she is in the field. And Rose Byrne, often the best thing in a comedy these days, walks away with her scenes as the villainess who takes a cruel shine to Cooper. And then there’s Feig behind the camera, who treats these people like they really are in an espionage thriller: he establishes a fast, gag-heavy pace and creates exciting chases and action, not content with the current comedy trend of just planting a camera and letting actors riff endless sketches. There’s even an intricate fight scene in a kitchen that would make Jackie Chan proud. Spy is an action comedy that doesn’t skimp on either account.