Okay, that’s more like it. That thought kept running through my head while I was watching Spy. You see, Melissa McCarthy’s post-Bridesmaids career as a leading lady has not been a story of untrammeled success. She kept playing sad, borderline pathological cases (Identity Thief, Tammy). Her work as a cop in The Heat was closer to the mark but still not where we needed it to be. Now her frequent director Paul Feig has finally provided her with the star vehicle that she needed, and the result is the funniest comedy so far this summer.
She portrays Susan Cooper, a CIA technician who communicates by headset with one of the agency’s top operatives Bradley (Jude Law) while he’s in the field and enables him to be a superspy. That position unfortunately gives her a front-row seat when Bulgarian terrorist arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) gets the drop on Bradley and kills him. With the villainess in possession of all the other field agents’ identities, Susan volunteers to go undercover herself to find out how Rayna is planning to acquire a nuclear warhead and maybe avenge Bradley too.
You might look at this premise and think the movie is one long “fat lady does spy stuff” gag, but that would be wrong. Instead, the central joke here is much better — Susan is actually really good at doing spy stuff, but she’s been squirreled away in an office job because she thinks she can’t cut it in the field. The spy story gives the film a framework so that on the infrequent occasions when the jokes fall flat, the momentum doesn’t stop dead. It also gives rise to some great recurring gags, such the one where Susan keeps being sent out disguised as frumpy women. She looks at one get-up and says, “All this needs is a t-shirt saying, ‘I have never known the touch of a man.’ ”
Writer-director Paul Feig takes care to insert plot points that make Susan believable as a spy — we see her speaking passable French, exercising some keen observational skills, and pulling Bradley out of the fire early on even while dealing with a bat infestation at her office. As a director, Feig gives this movie the feel of a spy thriller, with explosions, fight sequences, and chase scenes in the streets of Paris, Rome, and Budapest that interpolate gags like the ones during Susan’s scooter pursuit of one bad guy. I do wish, though, that cinematographer Robert Yeoman (who has done great work on Feig’s comedies and also Wes Anderson’s films) had more flair for the genre.
The supporting cast members do their part, with Law alternating between James Bond suavity and his own brand of goofiness and Byrne slotting well into the part of a dragon-lady villain who’s awful to her staff — there’s a hysterical scene where she faces down an underling (Mitch Silva) who wants to kill her merely because she can never remember his name. Solid contributions likewise come from Morena Baccarin as a pretty agent who inspires jealousy in her female colleagues, Peter Serafinowicz as a handsy Italian spy who keeps coming on to Susan, and Allison Janney as the deputy director who sends Susan out.
Best and most unexpected is Jason Statham as a fellow agent who resigns in disgust when Susan is promoted and then insists on following her around on her mission, thinking she’s bound to mess up. (Of course, he never realizes that his presence does more to screw up the mission than Susan does.) Statham gleefully sends up his own action-hero image as a manlier-than-thou guy given to outlandish boasting: “I once impersonated Barack Obama in front of Congress! I once had this arm ripped off completely and then re-attached it with [the other] arm!”
At the center of this, McCarthy does a fair amount of her own stuntwork and moves better than you might expect from a woman her size. Her ad-libs are on point as usual: Watching a would-be hit man die horribly from his own poison intended for Rayna, Susan queasily tells her, “That guy was trying to kill you! He doesn’t deserve to have a throat!” Later, when Rayna finds out that Susan isn’t the Iowa housewife that she’s claimed to be, she invents a whole new cover story and persona on the spot. McCarthy finds a delicate balance between her character’s formidable skills and her teetering self-confidence, and in doing so makes Spy into the most likable of this summer’s action-thrillers, if not the best one.
Starring Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne. Written and directed by Paul Feig.