Here’s the extraordinary thing about Spy, the latest comedy from director and hitmaker Paul Feig: it somehow manages to feel like both a star vehicle and an ensemble piece even though those classifications generally belong on opposite ends of the spectrum.
At its center is Melissa McCarthy, who’s been memorable when part of a large cast (Bridesmaids, St. Vincent) or even in a co-starring role (The Heat) but whose chances at a headlining career took a hit with last summer’s dismal Tammy. But Feig, who guided the actress to an Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids and also helmed The Heat, clearly knows how to best employ her talents, and with Spy, a picture he not only directed but also wrote, he offers her what’s basically a cinematic love letter, allowing her to not only flex her comic chops like never before but also presenting her with her most complete character to date.
McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who’s content confined to desk duty, serving as the miked-up voice in the ear of agent extraordinaire Bradley Fine (Jude Law). But when Fine is put out of commission by a femme fatale named Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, another Bridesmaids alumna), Susan volunteers to go out into the field.
Her boss (Allison Janney) informs her that she’s only to observe and report, but Susan instead finds herself immersed in deep-cover espionage, mixing it up with Rayna while also contending with Rick Ford (Jason Statham), a rogue CIA agent who firmly believes that Susan will hopelessly screw up the mission.
The plot is fairly standard spy-spoof material, but Feig has taken great care to provide his star with an arsenal of comedic opportunities. McCarthy never once lets him down: Her Susan Cooper is wholly sympathetic, but that vulnerability (rarely seen in the actress’ roles before) never interferes with her ability to deliver precision-timed laughs.
Many of these gags are at her expense, but they’re never mean-spirited, and, perhaps most pleasingly, they don’t revolve around her weight (the fat jokes are mercifully MIA) but rather the impressions that others make about her. It’s here where the rest of the cast comes in and makes Spy far more than a one-woman show.
Without fail, all of the performers beautifully play off McCarthy and her often hapless, often heroic character, particularly Byrne, who’s wonderful as a cool crime queen both amused and annoyed by Susan’s shenanigans, and Statham, absolutely hysterical as a macho agent more skilled in braggadocio than in anything else.
Yet the depth chart extends beyond just the marquee names, with Miranda Hart endearing as Susan’s equally awkward friend and co-worker Nancy and Peter Serafinowicz ceaselessly amusing as the randy Italian agent Aldo.
Like this past spring’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy derives a good amount of mileage out of upending spy-flick conventions. The scene where Susan is outfitted with a wide range of gadgets for her mission is a deft takeoff on all those meetings between James Bond and Q, only 007 never had his life-saving gizmos hidden inside a stool-softener bottle or a wristwatch emblazoned with the poster art for a movie every woman is apparently required to love (a gag that still has me chuckling).
And the excesses often seen in action yarns is taken to inspired extremes, not only in the character played by Statham (the movie could have used even more of him) but also in the scene in which Susan records her first (unintentional) kill.
Whether Spy holds up to repeat viewings (as does Feig’s Bridesmaids) is unknown, although the incessant audience laughter at the advance screening drowned out so many quips that a second viewing will at least feel like it’s offering some new material. But even if this is a one-and-done deal, that virginal viewing provides a great time at the movies.
And as far as spy games go, the high quality of both this picture and Kingsman: The Secret Service means that even James Bond himself will have to be at the top of his game when Spectre hits theaters this November.