There’s a trick to dealing with Melissa McCarthy’s outsized onscreen personality, a trick that only writer/director Paul Feig seems to have figured out. Not even the actress’s own husband, Ben Falcone, understands it (which doesn’t bode well for next year’s Michelle Darnell). No, what Feig gets right in each of his previous collaborations (Bridesmaids, The Heat) is that a strong McCarthy, an unexpectedly adept and skilled McCarthy, is a heck of a lot better than a whiny, sheepish McCarthy. Her characters need to be women with power, even if said abilities are buried in a first act narrative set-up.
That’s what happens in Spy, perhaps the best example of the duo’s comedic symbiosis. When we meet McCarthy’s Susan Cooper, she’s a desk jockey, an intelligent but pragmatically inept CIA expert. She assists field operative Bradley Fine (Jude Law) and the two have developed a close bond over the years. When he is “killed” during an arms deal with the villainous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), our heroine volunteers to take his place, which is a good thing, since all other agents on the case have been compromised, including bullheaded macho man Rick Ford (Jason Statham).
While her boss (Allison Janney) is suspicious of sending such a newbie out into the field, Cooper is finally relocated to Europe, where she rendezvous with Boyanov and her Italian playboy contact Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale). There, we learn the horrible truth: the duo have a nuke, and they plan on selling it to the highest bidder. With the help of her best friend (Miranda Hart) and an insider (Peter Serafinowicz), they get close to discovering the whereabouts of the device. Then something happens that changes the entire dynamic, leaving Cooper as the only hope for humanity.
As we said before, Feig “gets” McCarthy. He also seems to understand Law, Byrne, and perhaps, equally important, Statham. All four performers do amazing work in Spy, perhaps some of the best they’ve ever done. This is especially true of the first and last names on the list, as their comic byplay is a real highlight of the film. Statham, not known for his sense of humor (at least, on screen) really shines here, stealing every scene he is in, and Feig makes sure to milk his presence for all that it represents.
Indeed, one of the hallmarks of his sense of humor is using expectations against the audiences. We expect Statham to be the hero. Instead, he’s a hotheaded doofus. McCarthy is, too. Of course, some in the audience will see a dowdy, overweight actress and think the same thing. But that’s where Feig’s perspective kicks in. Cooper is not a doormat. She’s smart. She’s savvy, and when put in a position where her life is on the line, she becomes the secret agent we all know she can be. Feig then finds the wit within such juxtapositions while letting his cast riff as creatively, and crudely, as possible.
One of the funniest things in Spy is McCarthy’s prodigious potty mouth. She’s among the few actresses who can consistently work blue and still keep us in stitches. Sure, some of her putdowns sound right out of the adolescent playground, but in her delivery and determination (and invention), she really makes us laugh. Even the mandatory slapstick, forced upon her by a Hollywood still trying to get a handle on how to treat a plus-sized superstar, works, all because we identify with Cooper. If we didn’t, or if McCarthy was forced to play demure and dumb, we’d hate every body-shaming moment of it.
That was the problem with Tammy. We grew tired of the character, and her clueless complaining. Here, McCarthy is in charge, and the force of her personality plays perfectly within Feig’s spy spoof. Law and Statham have been here before, and Byrne looks like she could be an international femme fatale. But McCarthy is different. She’s developing her brand here, making sure audiences understand what to expect when they walk into the theater. Yet when she becomes an ersatz Jane Bond, we believe it. Better still, we find ourselves hoping that there will be more Susan Cooper adventures in the future.
This is not a perfect film, however. Byrne, whose been excellent in other comedies, is stuck playing the straight woman and it really doesn’t suit her. As a baddie, she’s fine. Excellent. As a source of accidental exposition, we grow weary. Also, the ad-libbed nature of films like this leave some shaggy ends, story wise. We walk out with a few questions. Spy has no answers. Instead, it takes a known genre, lampoons the obvious, and then gives us a collection of crazy characters (none more so than Statham) to further tickle our funny bone. And it works. We laugh a lot during Spy, and it’s not forced laughter. Instead, it’s heartfelt and genuine, like the Susan Cooper character herself.
All of which bodes well for Feig and McCarthy’s next partnership, the all female Ghostbusters reboot. Sure, there will be three other actresses (Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon) on board, but as with Bridesmaids, this is one filmmaker who understands how to manage an all-star ensemble. In fact, the last time he did so, it earned two of the cast members Oscar nominations. You need look no further than this fact to prove Feig understands how to best showcase McCarthy’s talents. Spy is a pretty darn good example, as well.