It looks as though there is no stopping this Paul Feig/Melissa McCarthy train. With Bridesmaids and The Heat behind us and a new Ghostbusters ahead, these two obviously have a strong relationship and will continue to work with one another. And good for them. I like the idea of partnerships, continuing to do new things with each other. Some of it works (Bridesmaids) and some of it really doesn’t (The Heat). Their new film Spy kind of falls in the middle, giving McCarthy an actual three-dimensional character to play but suffers the fate of modern day alt-driven comedy.
By “alt”, I do not mean alternative or different. I mean the use of alts, alternate takes. On set, they improv a bunch of different variations of a joke and will see in editing which one works best. Except when this happens, more often than not, they end up wanting to use as many as they can instead of just one, which drives what could have been a laugh line into the ground. Comedy should not hit you over the head with a punchline repeatedly because eventually, you will just be saying, “I get it. Move along, please.” There are good jokes here, but they say them ten times rather than one.
You know the kinds of scenes I’m talking about. Two characters are usually in an argument. One character says something outrageous for the joke. The other responds by questioning it. The first tries to clarify by explaining it to seem more outrageous. The other questions it. The first says something out of left field. The other says a variation of, “That doesn’t even make sense.” Then the first gets frustrated and they continue the rest of the scene. It all derives from the Judd Apatow and improv-revolution schools of humor, and it gets tiresome fast. Some people are able to make this belligerent style of comedy work. Will Ferrell in Anchorman comes to mind, as he is playing a belligerent character. But for a mostly-normal human being to be doing this, it gets old.
The thing about Spy is not only is it a comedy, but it is also an action spy movie. These are propulsive films. Finding clues, chasing bad guys, getting assignments, and everything else the genre calls for is in this movie, and it actually gets a lot of the spy stuff right. It’s when the film stops for comedy, rather than weaving the comedy in with the action, that it begins to falter.
The action scenes are surprisingly violent and explicit, and adequately captured by Feig. It’s his first time doing action on this scale before, so I can cut him a little slack there. He, at least, doesn’t chop up his scenes within an inch of their life, a rarity nowadays. The investigative work McCarthy’s Susan Cooper does is intriguing, to the point I would have preferred they’d gone with a more straightforward action-spy movie here than attempting any comedy.
The only performance that manages to keep the film feeling propulsive, when it’s actually at a stand still, is Jason Statham, who lights things up every time he’s on screen. You can tell he has not had this much fun in a part in years and is thrilled to be delivering the craziest stories of his previous missions. Nearly everything he does got a huge laugh from me.
Rose Byrne gets to generate a couple of chuckles with her sly, harsh putdowns as the villainous Rayna Boyanov, a woman in possession of a nuclear bomb and looking to sell it. Jude Law, Allison Janney, and especially (and undeservedly) Bobby Cannavale are given little to nothing to do in terms of comedy. It’s Miranda Hart, playing best friend to McCarthy’s character, who is given the bulk of jokes alongside McCarthy and Statham, and yet Hart’s ultra-naive, scared schtick wears out its welcome about forty-five seconds in.
But this is the Melissa McCarthy show, and thankfully she is given someone other than a loud idiot to play. She completely sells this woman who really is not happy with herself and is afraid she doesn’t matter. Even if I didn’t find the jokes particularly funny, she grounds this movie in a really unique way I couldn’t help but admire. She shows here she can be a lot more than just crass and broad all the time.
Spy is not a disaster. It has some good action, a grounded, real performance from McCarthy, and a few laughs, mostly due to Jason Statham. I just wish Feig had toned down the alt-comedy to where it doesn’t feel like it’s taking over the movie. You can do that a couple of times, but when it’s every third scene, I start doing the “wrap it up” hand motion in my head. They never wrap up when they should.