Melissa McCarthy was wonderful in Bridesmaids and The Heat, but she’s had a hard time carrying a film by herself. Her new film Spy gives her a pretty good showcase, but it’s also pretty uneven, and lapses into laughing at her, rather than with her. A huge part of the problem? It can’t get over being a genre spoof.
Minor spoilers ahead...
In Spy, McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, an analyst who sits in a vermin-infested CIA basement and assists the debonair superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law), looking through his contact-lens camera and watching him via satellite surveillance. But after Bradley is taken out of the picture and the other agents are compromised, Susan volunteers to go in the field (where nobody knows her face) and retrieve a loose nuke before it’s sold to terrorists.
Spy is venturing into territory that countless films have ransacked before: the spy-fi spoof. Austin Powers, Our Man Flynt, The Naked Gun, Get Smart, Johnny English, the original Casino Royale, a few Jackie Chan films, RED, the Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe... we could be here all day listing them.
And Spy brings something fairly new to this comedy subgenre: a female protagonist. But it still can’t resist reaching for as much of the low-hanging fruit of easily mocked genre conventions as it can grab. The central “joke” of the film is that Melissa McCarthy doesn’t look like, say, Angelina Jolie. So she’s kind of a “fish out of water” in the world of ballgowns, sophisticated casinos, huge elaborate car chases, seduction and subterfuge.
There are basically two kinds of jokes you can do with this “fish out of water scenario,” and Spy wobbles back and forth between both of them: 1) Melissa McCarthy is out of her depth and is too clumsy and crass to do all the James Bond stuff. 2) Everybody underestimates Melissa McCarthy, and she winds up outsmarting them all, while also using the force of her personality to get through tough situations.
When the film goes with scenario #2 (everybody understimates Melissa), it’s funny and sharp, and there’s a certain amount of joy to be found in watching spy-movie stereotypes get outsmarted and outmaneuvered by a smack-talking Midwestern girl. When it goes with scenario #1 (she’s clueless and clumsy) it feels like it’s playing to stereotypes, instead of playing with them — and the humor feels kind of blah.
To some extent, the movie is trying to sketch an arc from clueless to understimated, while suggesting that Susan always had the potential to be a great agent but she was stuck in that basement because people like Bradley Fine sapped her confidence. That’s a great character progression, but the movie is too eager to keep coming back to the easy gags to sell it completely.
There is, however, a pretty brilliant running gag where the CIA keeps giving Susan cover identities that are based on the kind of terrible role that McCarthy has probably been offered in her career: lonely cat lady, frumpy mother of four, and so on.
Also on the plus side, Spy has Jason Statham doing a wonderfully self-satirizing turn as a hardcore spy who constantly boasts about the time his arm got torn off and he had to reattach it in the middle of a firefight, etc. Whenever Statham shows up and bugs out his eyes and starts spitting at the camera, the movie gets a bit more life.
As it is, Spy is a fun movie, with some comedic bits that work really well and some that work less well. It’s a solid middling comedy, but not up to the standard of McCarthy’s previous collaborations with director Paul Feig, The Heat and Bridesmaids. The Heat, too, was a genre spoof (buddy-cop comedy) — but it was hung on the relationship between its two leads, which gave it an emotional core and a chemistry that Spy sorely lacks.
To some extent, a genre spoof has to be even more careful than other types of genre movies not to become a slave to convention. When things are trotted out not because they serve the story but because they are, on some level, expected in this sort of thing, that is the death of storytelling. And trotting out the expected conventions just to subvert them in a mindless, narcoleptic fashion is actually worse than trotting them out to play them straight.
All in all, Spy is pretty fun — but also feels like it falls a bit short of its potential. I feel like there’s a story buried in there about someone who gets perpetually underestimated, and learns to underestimate herself, but then she finally gets out in the world and discovers how formidable she really is. The bones of that story are in there, for sure, but they get a bit lost as the film goes for the easy gags.
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