Posted by : Patrick | June 18, 2015
Just because I say there’s a lot to love in Paul Feig’s and Melissa McCarthy’s Spy doesn’t mean I’m making a play on words or anything. For real. All I’m really talking about is how despite some meandering bits, Spy is actually quite funny, and does a good job taking on secret agent movies for all their impossibly sexy, ultra smooth ways. It seems that since Sean Connery first walked onscreen as James Bond in 1962’s Dr. No, being suave and super-badass has been a prerequisite to playing a spy on film. Well, not anymore!
Spy pays tribute to the women behind the (mostly) men, all those poor, socially awkward misfits that operate computers and get ignored by male bartenders on a Friday night by inserting them into the field to become the foxy heroes their moms and grandmas always knew they could be. McCarthy’s CIA analyst Susan Cooper is just such a gal. From behind her hi-tech station, she sees through contact lens-camera eyes of her dreamboat partner, a cartoonishly dashing tuxedoed operative played by Jude Law. Monitoring him from her mouse-infested nest, she sees him travel over all the world, attend the most exotic parties, seduce beautiful women, and kill lots of people. This last part is what she helps with, using infrared spy satellites and tactical rocket strikes to bail her boy out of trouble and warn him of that goon right around the corner. Naturally, she’s in love with the man (he is Jude Law after all), and has forsaken her own ambitions in order to stay close, despite being worlds apart. You know, the kind of hopeless romantic who’s not at all jealous of the genetically lucky and owns too many cats.
With the encouragement of her similarly socially situated friend and coworker, Cooper has the opportunity to become a field agent, and jumps at it, kickstarting the movie into comedic high gear (as any leap by this woman is bound to be followed by pratfalls) in her attempts to prove that girl dorks can be cool too. Along the way she is mercilessly hit upon by an Italian agent, bluntly reminded that as a computer geek she is going to epically fail by an ultra-macho colleague, and ruthlessly criticized by a gorgeous, snooty, popular heiress (Rose Byrne, wonderfully game for anything), who naturally happens to be the villain. Shades of every female-centric high school movie abound, but with an action-espionage setting that gives normally ridiculous overwrought emotion some actual “my life is over!” stakes instead of just hyperbole over lack of a prom date.
The only thing it’s missing is the scene where Agent Cooper takes off her glasses and lets down her hair to reveal the beauty hidden all along. Instead, when she tries to doll up her otherwise hilariously pedestrians covers she is given, her fanciness and taste is immediately shot down by the kind of villainess we all hated as teenagers. But what makes Spy so refreshing is that this isn’t about someone learning to love themselves, embrace what they are, or any kind of feel-good self-empowerment schlock. Cooper already gets it from the start. She’s never going to look a certain way, and that’s the way it is. So what? Doesn’t mean she can’t still be awesome, and by giving as good as she gets, going head-to-head and insult-to-insult with everyone from the rich bitch she wants to take down to a buffoonish braggart (Jason Statham, stealing every scene he’s in), she wins over anyone doubting that this chick has the right stuff. By having confidence in herself right from the start, McCarthy is allowed to be funny and likeable and physically dominant instead of whiny. Thank god. Thus, when other characters are drawn to her, we can actually see why: this lady kicks ass. The script is also allowed to do its job and take shots at male-dominated spy movies in general, with a woman who is as far from their usual milieu as we have ever seen.
Cooper’s covers are a great example of this. Instead of ultra-cool international business identities, like the other, hotter agents receive, she ends up being saddled with playing a Midwestern divorcee with a herd of cats and a rhinestone-decorated sweatshirt. Or a permed, middle-aged spinster who passes her abundant free time with crochet and decoupage. Each new passport elicits a groan from Cooper, who wants to be mysterious, and laughs from the audience, especially at the perfectly photoshopped images. Would James Bond or Ethan Hunt go undercover as a dingy bathrobe-wearing college dropout living in his parent’s basement? SPECTRE would never see it coming. Having poison antidote disguised in a container for stool softener in place of hi-tech gadgetry adds to embarrassment. Stories that shine a light on the worker bees behind the scenes often show the less glamorous side, but in a category of movies that seldom likes to look anything but sleek, seeing support team members like Cooper’s gleefully dorky coworker Nancy out in the daylight acting as if this were all some kind of espionage-themed LARPing weekend is a refreshing jolt to a very stale genre. On top of that, the men are relegated to relative passivity. Statham’s ass talks big game about being immune to poison and driving cars on fire, but when it comes time for us to actually see him perform, well, let’s just say that I believe that he believes that he’s impressive, and we’ll leave it at that. This never feels like some forced preachy girl power thing, but just an organic alternative, a clever skewering of the norm, with love for its flaws. Like with this summer’s Mad Max, it turns out there’s no need to make a big deal out of women driving a story.
Spy isn’t a classic or anything; it does have slow points, like many comedies, but more often the jokes hit and hit hard, so the film never wears out its welcome. The direction by Paul Feig is also nothing outstanding, though he stays out of the way of the actors, which in many ways equates to doing his job. Their boundless energy and willingness to self-deprecate is what elevates the comedy of an already witty script. But the best thing about Spy is that it does what counterintelligence is supposed to do: it subverts the enemy, whether that be catty girl movie clichés or even a certain British cinematic dinosaur himself.
My Rating: 3½ out of 4