Recently it was announced that the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly was being canceled. Though it still pulled respectable ratings, it was clear that its star, Melissa McCarthy was slumming it, co-starring in a middling sitcom (for which she won an Emmy in its premier season). Instead of being a TV star, though, something far more interesting happened: Melissa McCarthy became a bonafide, box-office superstar. More than any other female comic in recent years, McCarthy has racked up a list of box-office smashes (Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, The Heat, Tammy) and is going to star in the remake of Ghostbusters. With this impressive track record, she’s joined the ranks of Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, and Ben Stiller. And like Sandler, Carrey, Apatow, and Stiller, the quality of the films – despite their financial success – ebbs and flows.
But Spy is an excellent outlier in the otherwise mediocre film oeuvre of Melissa McCarthy. It’s a spoof on the action film, but doesn’t rely on parody to tell its story. Instead, it’s that strange rare popcorn film that is smart, broad, funny, and progressive.
McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who must jump into the field as an undercover agent to stop the black market sale of a nuclear bomb. The plot sounds ridiculously far-fetched written down, but writer/director Paul Feig (reunited with McCarthy after Bridesmaids) has crafted a fantastic story. Susan could’ve easily been a joke, but instead, he writes a character that is smart, wise, and resourceful. When all of the CIA’s top agents’ identities have been compromised, it’s the normally-invisible Susan that is called on by her boss, Elaine Crocker (a snarky Allison Janney) to go undercover and tail Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, McCarthy’s costar from Bridesmaids), who may know where and when the nuke sale will take place.
Credit must be given to Feig, who creates a solid action caper. He sends his heroine to some ritzy locales in Paris, and poor old Susan has to don some pretty hideous wigs and costumes to pass as an assuming frumpy American tourist. As a director, Feig also handles the action sequences well – though it must be said, that for a mainstream comedy, it’s shockingly violent, and there are a lot of deaths – some of them quite graphic. The fight sequences are beautifully choreographed: there is one brilliant fight scene, in particular, set in a kitchen between McCarthy and Nargis Fakhri (who plays a henchman) that benefits from some spectacular choreography, fantastic staging, and some nifty use of kitchen equipment as the two women go head-to-toe, brandishing cleavers, knives, and using skillets as shields.
Though not explicitly feminist, Spy has a great message and uses its star wisely. It’s tempting to use a comedienne like McCarthy for sight gags and physical comedy, particularly because of her weight – and in the past, McCarthy herself has leaned on that as a crutch. She’s great at playing very broad characters, but she’s always managed to imbue even the most cartoonish character with flecks of personality. In Spy, she’s finally gifted with a script that allows for her to make use of her considerable slapstick prowess, but yet, still build a character. She employs well-placed pauses and verbal inflections, and has an understated way of delivering her lines, which is a perfect balance for her more raucous moments of falling over, crashing through doors, or face planting on the ground.
And though McCarthy is the star, she gets some fantastic support from a well-cast supporting ensemble. Byrne, not most people’s first choice for comedienne, does bitchy very well, and is great as a straight man to McCarthy – the two, though adversaries in the film, make for a great comic duo – she serves up some deliciously cruel one-liners and the two bounce off each other well. And as Susan’s best girlfriend, stand-up comic Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) blesses the film with her ebullient presence. And as the male leads, Jason Stratham and Jude Law both show wiley, hidden comic chops – the former, especially, steals his scenes, as a disgruntled CIA agent, disgusted at Susan’s sudden professional ascent.
As a spoof, Spy works because it gently tweaks at the conventions of the spy genre, but it also transcends the film parody genre. Film parody is difficult to pull off because even if the jokes work, if the film serves merely as a way to make fun of something, without bothering to be any good, then the film ages quickly and doesn’t work after repeated viewing. What makes Spy so engaging is that though it makes fun of the spy genre, it’s also a legitimate entry, as well. It has all of the ingredients: a heroic lead, beautiful women, handsome men, luxurious locales.
But more importantly, along with the funny, we also get an important message about self-confidence and hard work. Susan is great at her job because she works hard and studies hard. She knows her shit. The only problem is that because she’s a woman and because she’s a woman of size, she’s marginalized by her colleagues. That is one of the reasons why as an undercover agent, she’d be a choice pick: who is more invisible than women of size? And the early scenes in which Susan pines for Law’s dashing agent are sad because she’s clearly under the mistaken assumption that because of his looks, Law’s character is out of her league.
And so Spy works on a deeper level because Susan learns about self-confidence and gains it as she gets better at her job. Quickly those who dismiss her or underestimate her regret doing so. Feig and McCarthy also take care to ensure that Susan isn’t the joke. There are no fat jokes, nor do we think Susan is anything less than gorgeous when she’s not done up in undercover frump drag. When she wants to infiltrate a fancy casino party, she ditches her drab gear and instead shows up in a sexy, open neck black dress, and owns the room. Later on, she gets done up in a sexy blazer and sports a chic bob (looking remarkably similar to fellow comedienne Dawn French). And it all feels right, and not of it feels condescending or pandering. Susan’s a catch. She’s dashing. She’s funny. She’s gorgeous. She’s brave. And she kicks ass.
Aspiring filmmakers should watch Spy to learn how to make a successful, compelling mainstream comedy that doesn’t talk down to its audiences, doesn’t punch down, or pander to the lowest common denominator.