It may have taken four years of failed vehicles and forced cameos, but Melissa McCarthy finally hits her stride in Spy. Packaged and marketed as more of the same from McCarthy—an alternately crass and sincere broad comedy that misunderstands the difference between empathy and mockery—the slyly progressive and engaging Spy may end up being the most pleasant surprise of the summer, and just the reorientation that both McCarthy and her audience needed.
Sure, it’s a genre parody helmed by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig that leans as much on its actors’ ability to improvise streams of near-poetic profanity as it does on its own script, a description that sounds dangerously similar to the painfully laugh-free The Heat. And despite occasional unfortunate similarities, there is one key difference between the two: Spy is actually freaking hilarious.
McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent whose meekness has kept her behind the scenes and in the shadow of the handsome superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law) for over a decade. Her task is primarily to assist Fine in the field, monitoring assignments with drones, heat scanners, hidden cameras, etc.
While Fine is in pursuit of a nuclear weapon on the black market, he is seemingly incapacitated by a mysterious woman who knows the identities of all of the agency’s field operatives. Cooper, who is the right combination of invisible and knowledgeable, is tasked with gathering intel, but quickly finds herself embroiled in the world of wealthy international ne’er-do-wells and special agents of uneven reliability.
Predictably, trailers and posters have highlighted Cooper’s appearance as the butt of jokes, but the film itself treats the character very differently. Yes, there is a scene in which Italian men catcall every woman but her, but in the film it is more of a depiction of Cooper’s feelings toward her assigned cover as a single Midwestern cat lady than anything else. In fact, the film is extremely fair to Cooper’s sex appeal and sexuality, and never ironically. Both sides of McCarthy, meanwhile, are used to full effect; the shy, unassuming bruised ego that we saw in the sweet but limp Tammy, and the fiery foul-mouthed steamroller of The Heat.
Though Spy is specifically tailored around McCarthy’s terrific performance, the supporting cast is also full of revelations. Jason Statham plays supposed badass Rick Ford who is never at a shortage of brutal stories of death and dismemberment. Statham sinks his teeth into this part like he’s been waiting for it his entire life, and is full of just the right amount of self-deprecation. English comedian and sitcom star Miranda Hart makes her American breakthrough as Nancy, a fellow CIA basement-dweller who has many of the movie’s best one-liners. Rounding out the principle cast is Rose Byrne as criminal smuggler Rayna, whose razor-tongued barbs and preposterous outfits are a terrific showcase for her proven knack for comedy.
Director Feig makes not only thematic and comedic improvements over The Heat, but he is also developing as a technician, pulling off several set pieces that would feel appropriate in non-winking action movies. Funny, engaging, exciting and sympathetic, Spy is an unlikely but welcome entry alongside Mad Max: Fury Road in proving that progressive themes can be naturally woven into a narrative that works even if you ignore them entirely.
Playing this week
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Far from the Madding Crowd
Love & Mercy
Mad Max: Fury Road
Pitch Perfect 2
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX