I hate to start a review of a new Melissa McCarthy movie with anything that could be construed as a reference to her weight, but lately Miss McCarthy is someone who’s been kind of hard to get around. Ever since her break-out turn in Bridesmaids, she’s been in a string of big screen comedies that have played up her wacky physicality, but without ever quite utilizing her talents properly (I assume, I didn’t actually see Tammy or that Jason Bateman movie). At first glance, Spy pretty much looks exactly like any other movie in which Melissa McCarthy is forced to pratfall her way through a series of over-the-top situations. And the fact of the matter is, it pretty much is. It’s just that I think at this point McCarthy has become a comfortable enough on-screen performer to let her best comedic instincts fly, while the sure-handed approach of a frequent collaborator in Paul Feig has given us what might be the best version of a Melissa McCarthy movie we could possibly imagine.
In Spy, McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a low-level CIA analyst who has spent years working as the eyes and ears of CIA superstud, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). We’re then thrown in to the kind of high concept that can only really work in a broad comedy, as McCarthy is recruited to do reconnaissance in the field when Fine is killed and the cover of every CIA agent has been blown by supervixen Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). As I said, it’s the kind of concept that seems to only be a vehicle for McCarthy do lots of physical comedy, but I did appreciate the fact that they made McCarthy’s character a bit of a badass instead of just a bumbling idiot. Also, whatever contrivances the film has as a wacky comedy are compensated by the fact that the film’s plot mechanics — which are just about as hard to follow as any spy movie — both make the movie feel like a genuine homage to spy movies, while also pointing out that the plot doesn’t really matter in a movie that’s trying to deliver as many laughs as this thing does.
Like most movies that star a trained comedy specialist like McCarthy, I have to assume that a lot of her foul-mouthed riffing was improvised, and serves as further proof that she’s more than just capable of falling down a lot (though she does do that quite a bit in Spy). Also, I like some of the subtle personal touches that Feig (who also wrote the script) gives to the character to keep her from feeling too over-the-top, especially when she’s placed in the middle of a movie that does go fairly over-the-top, though in a way that you could probably imagine in some second-rate James Bond movie. Also, I liked the way this movie gives basically every one in its cast a chance to shine, especially when it features a lot of actors that you’re probably not used to laughing at. Rose Byrne finally gets a break from playing the concerned girlfriend/wife that she’s played in every other comedy she’s been in, and has a bunch of funny moments that poke fun at her boorish elegance. Allison Janney and Jude Law also get in some laughs, while if you can possibly believe it, Jason Statham is maybe the funniest thing in this entire movie. In fact, he’s just used sparingly enough here as an off-the-grid CIA agent that I was hoping for him to show up in each scene and make me laugh at his cold-blooded ridiculousness, which I’m still trying to wrap my mind around, but whatever, funny is funny.
Like most comedies that are concerned with little more than delivering a lot of laughs, Spy does lose a bit of steam in its second half as the comedic action set pieces give way to just straight-up action set pieces. Again, the plot is all secondary in a movie like this and I’m fine with that, though I can’t help but wonder if I would’ve liked it more if I had even a little interest in what was at stake here (there’s some weapons arms dealing going on or something?) But again, this is what most spy movies are like, so it’s fine. Also, at 120 minutes, Spy could’ve easily been shorter, which is just one more reason that What We Do In The Shadows remains the 2015 comedy to beat in my eyes, as that movie contained a perfect balance of no plot, all laughs, and no time to spare with a brisk 90 minute running time.
If there’s anything that makes Spy feel like more than just a funny and entertaining time at the movies, it’s that it continues Paul Feig’s notable streak of female-fueled comedies. Because here’s a movie that is essentially a send-up of a usually male-dominated action genre, and yet every likable, competent character in it is a woman, while every man is pretty much a douche or an idiot. And yet it does all that without ever feeling like it’s overtly trying to be anything resembling a “feminist movie”, but is just a movie with lots of well-developed female characters, and at the center of it even places the kind of female friendship that we don’t get enough of between McCarthy and her overwhelmed cohort, played by Miranda Hart. So I’m not sure if this is the end of some sort of genre-bending “Hey, Women Are Funny!” trilogy that Feig has constructed along with Bridesmaids and The Heat, but sadly, he seems to be one of the few people capable of making a decent female-driven big screen comedy, so I say keep ’em coming.