McCarthyism: McCarthy and cast make "Spy" an aggressively funny spy romp
117 min., rated R.
Melissa McCarthy is one of those uninhibited but relatable actresses whom Hollywood should learn never to spit out once they find out what to do with her. She's not a size 0 but she's a big talent, and that's not a knock at her weight in any way. Luckily, McCarthy owns every inch of "Spy," an aggressively uproarious, blithely entertaining espionage action-comedy that pairs the star once again with "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat" director Paul Feig, who also wrote the screenplay and is no doubt helped by the improv skills of McCarthy and an aces cast. Feig always seems to know how to put his female star's talents to use and turn a star vehicle into an ensemble piece at the same time, giving other talent the time of day with plenty to do. So far, "Spy" is easily the funniest and purest comedic entertainment of the year.
40-year-old Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) has been a CIA analyst for ten years, but instead of being out in the field, she has been desk-bound and restricted to the vermin-infested basement of the Langley agency. Being the eyes via satellite guidance and in the ear of suave spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law) for so long, Susan is ready to stop playing it so safe. When Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) reveals she knows the identities of the CIA's top field agents and intends to sell a nuclear bomb, no-nonsense boss Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) orders to send in someone invisible whom no one would recognize. Susan stands up, and while her mild-mannered demeanor would make her out of her league, she has thrown in her years-ago field training that she has the smarts and physical know-how. What is only to be a track-and-report mission leads Susan to break the first rule: do not make direct contact with any of the targets.
Wanting to be a belly-laughs comedy inside of a serious spy action movie, "Spy" finds a happy medium between both extremes without forgetting to be both and holding on to a light touch. Even if there is a James Bond-inspired opening credit sequence, it is knowing without really being a spoof and much funnier than its lame title would suggest. It's also the kind of smartly broad comedy that sets up jokes without any of them being just throwaways, aside from maybe the super-spy workplace being infested with bats and rats. Susan mistaking an elegantly presented sanitary napkin for an unusual amuse-bouche at dinner with Bradley Fine gets flipped when she later gets treated to dinner by Rayna. Bradley's gift to Susan—a plastic cupcake necklace—also comes in handy in the climax opposite the real villain. Most refreshing of all, Susan is never a punching bag for fat jokes or violent slapstick. Yes, she doesn't quite stick the landing in sliding over the hood of a car, and she falls down when using a motor scooter with a roof as a getaway car to pursue someone, but it never feels mean-spirited or at her expense.
Melissa McCarthy was an unstoppable force of nature in 2011's "Bridesmaids," 2013's "The Heat," that same year's obnoxious "Identity Thief" and 2014's funny-ish "Tammy." Here, as a secret agent, she is less domineering and never loses her winning sense of self, adorably playing Susan Cooper with such a scrappy, can-do attitude. Susan is a damn good agent and she could even get the guy in the end if she wanted as she is Bradley Fine's Miss Moneypenny to his James Bond. Through the several undercover identities she's given, all of them frumpier and less sexy than the last ("I look like someone's homophobic aunt"), but when she pretends to be Rayna's hired bodyguard "Penny Morgan," Susan finds her own fiery, take-no-shit super-spy identity as her field mission continues. McCarthy gets to showcase her full range of comedic timing and seamless knack for pathos, and the supporting cast is the definition of "support." Rose Byrne is viciously hilarious as the spoiled, bitchy Rayna, where quick-witted insults come easy to her (Susan reminds her of a sad Bulgarian clown) and no remorse is felt when ordering one of her bodyguards to off the more useless bodyguards. As Susan's eager-to-work-in-the-field girl friday Nancy, British comedienne Miranda Hart steals her share of laughs aplenty and brings a nice camaraderie to her friendship with McCarthy's Susan; Jude Law gamely sends up the James Bond persona without winking at the camera; Allison Janney deadpans terrifically in only a handful of introductory and concluding scenes, including a joke about Susan's pink eye; and Peter Serafinowicz also twists expectations as a handsy Italian driver named Aldo who constantly hits on Susan. Finally, not exactly known for being funny, the underestimated Jason Statham is the film's best-kept secret, a surprising standout as rogue, brutish Agent Rick Ford who's only a legend in his own mind, based on the absurdly dangerous stunts he's experienced, but keeps hindering himself whenever he shows up to wreck Susan's confidence.
As "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat" were fronted by females, "Spy" makes Melissa McCarthy's lovable, surprisingly nimble Susan Cooper the heroine, and she's responsible for making it all a gas. She even makes the old stand-by joke of a character stiffening up and fainting funny. Never overly crass, despite a "stab-and-puke" gag, the laughs come flying like speeding bullets and there are more thrills than expected. With that said, director Paul Feig might not be the most visual of directors—Matthew Vaughn pulled off far more inventive tricks in this year's "Kingsman: The Secret Service"—but he pulls off a cool style on Rayna's private jet once the enraged pilot ("The Groundlings" member Mitch Silpa) tries taking down "Penny," Rayna and her bodyguards, and there's a gory throat dissolve and a dizzyingly violent, deftly choreographed kitchen fight with pans and knives between Susan and deadly assassin Lia (Nargis Fakhri). One can certainly quibble with some of the spottier action coverage where we're obviously not watching McCarthy zoom along on a motorized bike in hot pursuit but a broad-shouldered stuntman with a matching wig. Feig and McCarthy's mission, if they choose to accept it, will be to keep their comic-gold partnership going and make a "Spy 2."