REVIEW: Spy

6 06 2015

Prior to “Spy,” Melissa McCarthy was one lumbering burlesque of a physical performance away from entering Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell territory.  This land, beyond typecasting, is a dump of sneering self-parody churned out at breakneck speed.  After breakout success in “Bridesmaids,” roles in “Identity Thief” and “Tammy” reduced her to little more than a one-dimensional punchline (not to mention a bit of a punching bag as well).

Thankfully, maestro Paul Feig arrives with Susan Cooper, a part that provides a well-timed reminder of McCarthy’s remarkable comic agility and versatility.  As an unlikely secret agent tracking down a rogue nuclear weapon on the black market, Susan often has to shift gears into new – and often unflattering – identities on the fly.  While playing a character who goes from shy and sheepish to brash and outspoken within a matter of minutes, McCarthy never appears anything less than completely confident.

Unfortunately, Feig’s script for “Spy” reserves all the surprises and range for its star.  In his past collaborations with Melissa McCarthy, Feig worked with screenplays from other comediennes: Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (“Bridesmaids”) as well as Katie Dippold (“The Heat“).  When tasked with creating the humor he has to orchestrate, Feig falls into rather predictable patterns that often feel one-note.

Spy

Much of the dialogue in “Spy” consists of odd one-liners, usually an unexpected metaphor for the situation at hand, that function like “LAUGHTER!” cue cards at a sitcom taping.  Feig scarcely masks when he wants to provoke a giggle or a chortle, which hardly bothers when the jokes land.  When they miss, however, the illusion of reality gets shattered as the forced, obviously scripted nature of the film shines through.  He seems to pick up steam as he goes along, as most of the whiffs take place at the beginning of the film.

Luckily, Feig recruits a talented enough cast of female comedians to mask some of the more uninspired elements.  Rose Byrne turns in an amusing variation of her snobby, uptight Helen from “Bridesmaids” as the villain of “Spy,” nefarious Rayna.  The script gives her nothing but elaborate put-downs of Susan’s plain looks, but Byrne somehow manages to make the character not only bearable but also mostly hilarious.  Miranda Hart, a comedian little-known outside of Britain, turns often cringeworthy dialogue as Susan’s sidekick, fellow CIA basement-dweller Nancy, into some of the film’s more memorable moments.

Even in spite of its many flaws, “Spy” does at least represent one improvement over “The Heat.”  Whereas Feig’s last film possessed a hollow, nominal feminism, his latest effort is a veritable anthem to strong, assertive women.  Working within the framework of the male-dominated espionage genre, “Spy” lampoons the hubristic boasting of men as empty posturing.  Susan and Nancy learn to dismiss Jude Law’s dim-witted debonair Bradley Fine and Jason Statham’s rogue reprobate Rick Ford, instead following their own good sense and intuition to complete their mission successfully.

So, in other words, it’s Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” adapted into a spy movie.  Given the recent upsurge of vocal support for gender equality in the workplace – especially in film, where a blog called “Shit People Say To Female Directors” can appallingly be a thing – the message feels particularly vital and timely.  B-2stars

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2 responses

7 06 2015
Rebecca

This wouldn’t normally be a film I’d usually see but I am intrigued by seeing Melissa McCarthy in a role worthy of her talents… Great review!

7 06 2015
Marshall

It’s not necessarily as funny, but I forgot to mention that I’d also recommend “St. Vincent” for McCarthy working outside her typical wheelhouse!

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