"Spy", starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne and Jude Law, is a lot better than I could have hoped.
Were my expectations too low? I think McCarthy is extremely funny - I love her television show "Mike & Molly" and some of her film work is great - but her last few films have been dreadfully unfunny. The highlight of her recent filmwork? "St. Vincent", a mediocre comedy starring Bill Murray featuring a more realistic supporting turn from McCarthy. The lowpoint? "Tammy", a vehicle conceived, written and directed by McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, a terribly unfunny attempt to deliver all of the elements of McCarthy's onscreen persona, all of the worst elements. McCarthy’s next film is also a project conceived, written and directed in collaboration with her husband. I’m not expecting great things.
"Spy", on the other hand, is actually funny. It capitalizes on some of the good parts of McCarthy's shtick and minimizes most of the bad elements.
Susan Cooper (McCarthy), a desk-bound CIA analyst, is the alter ego of super agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Every time Agent Fine makes a move, it is because of Susan's intelligence work, sitting at her computer in the basement of CIA headquarters, whispering into Fine's ear, giving him the information and data that he needs. If someone is coming around the corner, Susan knows it, using satellite and other tools to keep Fine informed. They are a good team and have had many successes together. But Fine seems oblivious to the fact that Susan has a mad crush on him. Trying to uncover the location of a stolen nuclear warhead in the hands of a terrorist, Rayna (Rose Byrne), the identities of all of the CIA agents are uncovered leaving only one option. Susan, highly trained but with no field experience, agrees to travel to Europe to help them find Rayna's location. Agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) doesn't agree to Susan's assignment and shows up in Europe, complicating things for the novice agent. Susan's friend, fellow analyst Nancy (Miranda Kerr) becomes the little voice in Susan's head, providing her with technological assistance.
Written and directed by Paul Feig (who seems to have found his muse in McCarthy), "Spy" works most of the time, giving us a genuinely funny movie. As with most comedies, there are a number of jokes that don't work, but in "Spy" the percentage is lower. An ongoing joke about pink eye is especially perplexing and unfunny. Each time it happens, you think “good, that’s over” only to wince when it happens again.
From the moment "Spy" begins, you realize that Feig has long enjoyed the adventures of James Bond and this is his way to pay homage. The opening credits are straight out of a 007 adventure. Agents Fine and Ford are really the two halves of Sean Connery's portrayal of the secret agent (with maybe a little Roger Moore thrown in). And the mission is akin to something you would see in "From Russia With Love". Feig gets all of this right and it makes the experience that much more enjoyable for a fellow Bond fanatic.
McCarthy has also done some of her most memorable work in Feig's films. Their big breakout film was "Bridesmaids", introducing both to the world. McCarthy turned in a stand-out supporting performance, eclipsing some of the other, more well-known actors in the film. Their second film together, "The Heat" was memorable because it allowed McCarthy to play against type and teamed her with Sandra Bullock. Now, with "Spy" McCarthy again plays against type (sort-of) while retaining some of the many elements that make her so lovable.
There are two ways a McCarthy performance can go. In films like "Tammy", she plays the uncultured, stupid oaf who is pretty much a human disaster. She has no confidence in herself and lets other people walk all over her. In other words, she plays into all of the worst stereotypes of someone who is overweight. As an overweight person, I recognize all of these traits and can empathize. But these portrayals don't elevate and help change public perception and so winds up reinforcing the negative stereotypes associated with being overweight.
McCarthy brings some of these character traits to Susan, but not all. And as she makes us laugh at Susan's shyness around Fine, she also makes us feel empathy for her. When they have completed the mission, Fine asks Susan out for dinner, leading the shy analyst to completely misconstrue the meaning of the date. When she realizes she was wrong, it leads us to feel for her.
Of course it is far-fetched to think that a desk bound CIA analyst is suddenly going to work a mission in the real world, but Feig establishes that this will happen fairly quickly and works to make all of the characters around Susan believe it will happen, which helps us go along for the ride.
These days, the key to a successful comedy is in the percentages. Some jokes will work, some won't. If the number of jokes that work is more favorable, it is usually a better comedy. Naturally, this is largely subjective. Most people who make films will tell you it is very hard to make a comedy, much harder than most other genres, because it is so subjective. What I find funny is not necessarily what someone else will find funny. But most can agree is a spaceship is sci-fi enough, or a dying lover is dramatic enough.
In "Spy", Feig and McCarthy work overtime to make the percentage higher. For instance, as soon as Susan learns she will be doing some fieldwork, the boss (Allison Janney, in a very straight and largely unfunny performance) gives her a fake identity which is the complete opposite of what Susan was hoping for. This continues, and each is more ludicrous than the last, until Susan decides to take matters into her own hands and buys herself a beautiful black dress. This is also a joke that could easily move over to the negative column. The alter egos are variations on McCarthy's shtick - lonely housewife, unaware oaf - but because Susan takes matters into her own hands and decides to go for something more glamorous, this joke moves into the positive column. Susan is learning how to work the system and become the woman she is, reminding everyone what someone with her training can do.
Jude Law is clearly having fun playing a variation of Sean Connery's secret agent. Incredibly suave, handsome and lucky, he never misses a beat and hits on every woman in eyesight, even when he has to run for his life.
Jason Statham is also very good, and surprisingly funny as super-agent Rick Ford. Statham is well-known for his action films, and has no trouble embracing that part of his role. But in "Spy", he actually shows his funny side – he is also very suave, but seems to be channeling some of the more goofy elements of a Roger Moore Bond adventure, making his agent a little bit of a doofus.
Rose Byrne is serviceable as the 'straight-man' who has to act oblivious to all of the funny stuff happening around her. Byrne has been around for a long time and this seems to be what she is best at - portraying someone unaware of the comedy who simply has to react to the others around her.
Miranda Kerr, in a role Feig wrote specifically for her, is pretty good as a supporting player. She manages the balance well - at times, she simply stands around because she is supposed to be present, at others, she has some funny stuff to say or do. Kerr, perhaps best known for her role on the British import "Call The Midwife", is much more famous in the U.K. as a comedian, headlining her own show for a number of seasons. In "Spy", she makes a promising debut as a funny lady.
Sure, the funny bits in “Spy” work, but there are also some good action scenes. Late in the film, their is a knife fight between Susan and one of the villains, which is really well-done. If this were one of Statham's full-on action films, the sequence would seem completely at home. Here, they give it little twists to make it more in-line with Susan's character.
It is a joy to watch someone like Feig make a good homage to a genre of film he clearly loves. I am looking forward to the inevitable sequel.