7 out of 10
Melissa McCarthy as Susan Cooper
Directed by Paul Feig
Parody is attractive because it has a base of material to start with rather than requiring creation from whole cloth – it’s always easier to retreat to jokes which are known to work – and James Bond-type spy heroics embodied by the likes of CIA superspy Brad Fine (Law) are a particularly easy target. Suave, sophisticated and skilled, he’s the best field agent The Company has to offer thanks in large part to having the best handler: dumpy, frumpy Susan Cooper (McCarthy), who is everything Fine is not.
It’s a solid set up for McCarthy, who is almost as good at delivering muttered self-deprecation as she is at full throated ribald takedowns designed to make poncy guys in purple suits cry. But it’s also rife with landmines in the form of old jokes which, because they’ve worked before, are trotted out again with only slightly different coverings. It’s one of the most frequent traps in comedy, particularly comedic film making, and its one Spy flirts with from multiple directions.
After several successful years of television and film performances, Melissa McCarthy has honed her particular brand of comedy to a fine edge and proven she has a considerable arsenal to draw from; but she’s also reached the point where she’s drawing from what she feels comfortable doing as opposed to reaching for new levels.
That gives her one of two outlets to play (admittedly to the hilt) starting with her favorite, the unglamorous, existing at some level beneath the calm, cool and collected superspies like Law or Monica Baccarin (who could be removed from the film completely, so little does she affect the plot) if not actively belittled by them. Yes, she does it well, but that doesn’t make it any easier to the fact that the set-up has been around for so long it’s stopped having any meaning or point.
The idea that the office drudges at the CIA like Susan are the same as offices drudges anywhere would be interesting if it were used for something other than a starting point for the super-macho super agents like Rick Ford (Statham) to order coffee from her or stuck being attached to a more narratively driven Bond-esque spy plot. Susan has the skills needed to be a great field agent, but she let herself be sidelined in order to look after and pine after Fine, a luxury she must give up when a mission goes wrong and she must go after a beautiful arms dealer (Byrne) set on selling a nuclear weapon to one of America’s many enemies.
With every field agent the CIA has compromised, Cooper is the only choice to go into the field, locate the broker (Cannavale) making the sale and save the day in piece of utterly familiar spy-film parody which doesn’t distinguish itself at all from the other versions we’ve seen over the years and none of which is as funny as it once was. Writer-director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) reuses every old-school Bond bit there is, from a stylized musical opening number to high tech gadgets disguised as everyday items, clichés which were hoary when Peter Sellers and David Niven covered them in the ’60s and haven’t gotten less so over time.
Feig seems to want to take those notions and spin them off into untouched territory and occasionally he even succeeds – a spy doing surveillance on McCarthy and her gang who also uses his camera to take pictures of his genitals works far better than you’d think, mainly from Feig’s skill with timing – but that tends to highlight his decent back into more familiar territory.
More problematic: The choice of an espionage plot means a narrative which needs to be constantly moving and is forced to stop frequently for one of McCarthy’s characteristic diatribes (and for which narrative drive is bit of an afterthought). There’s some attempt to blend the two together, but McCarthy’s particular skill set works far better when she can stand around and extemporize than when engaged in a knife fight.
It’s not all bad news; far from it in fact. Whatever pitfalls Feig’s choices as a writer may have created, he’s lost nothing in his ability to assemble a strong cast tailor-made for what he needs them to do and making sure they have good enough material that McCarthy isn’t forced to do all the heavy lifting all of the time.
Statham actually comes off the best, gifted with the role of petulant man-child runner-up to Law, skilled enough to sweet talk his way into a private meeting or to make his own clothes from whatever materials happen to be handy, but too stupid to figure out what’s really going on. He actually outdoes sitcom star Hart as a set-up man for McCarthy as the film trades off her comedy assistant between the two of them and now veteran straight woman Byrne.
Not every choice is a good one – a late cameo from 50 Cent is painful to watch, but it’s a laugh riot compared with Serafinowicz, who’s permanently aroused Italian agent Aldo isn’t funny when we meet him the first time and doesn’t get any funnier no matter how much he forces himself on us. But Spy hits more often than it misses. Repetition of jokes, both the ones that work and the ones that don’t, is a problem Feig is certainly aware of as he switches tracks completely at the halfway point, transforming McCarthy from the mousy wannabe to the mouthy uber-agent.
A willingness to cede the limelight to other players, or to reach for non sequitur jokes which aren’t stuck to the milieu Feig’s chosen, both shows how aware he and McCarthy are of the potential problems they face and their ability to experiment and succeed with new approaches. It also keeps Spy from being as stale as it could have turned out and in fact frequently provides some welcome doses of humor that remind us of how good a director-actor team they make rather than how good they used to be.
But it can’t hide the fact that both star and director have reached a tipping point every successful comedian seems to reach. Time will tell which way they come down.