It’s easy to forget how great an actress Melissa McCarthy can be when she’s given good material to work with. After Bridesmaids brought her international stardom, critical acclaim and a well-deserved Oscar nomination, McCarthy seemed primed for super-stardom. But save for Feig’s own The Heat, no movie since then has capitalized on her prodigious comedic energy and improvisational skills. Identity Thief and Tammy (which she co-wrote with husband Ben Falcone) were both big hits, establishing her as a legitimate box office star, but they were also god-awful movies in which she played a variation of the same loud and abrasive persona; a woman characterized by her grotesque behavior and pratfalls. With the actress playing the same character for four straight movies, it was almost as if McCarthy had been typecast into playing only one character.
This is why Spy, McCarthy’s third collaboration with Feig, is such a revelation. An uproarious action-comedy and whip-smart riff on spy movies, and especially the Bond franchise, Spy takes that abrasive “Melissa McCarthy” persona we’ve all come to know (and in many cases, loathe) and completely turns it on its head. With a stronger joke-a-minute ratio than any comedy since 21 Jump Street, Spy is also the best American spy comedy since the Austin Powers movies. Only the Jean Dujardin-led OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is superior among recent non-American spy comedies. More importantly, it’s the first film that perfectly showcases McCarthy’s full range as a comedian and A-list movie star: She’s simultaneously sweet, warm, tough, profane, and flat-out hilarious.
McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a mousy and mild-mannered CIA analyst who spends her days being the extra pair of eyes for super secret agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) as he kills bad guys in the field. When a Russian arms dealer named Reyna (Rose Byrne – in top form) kills Bradley and threatens to reveal the aliases of all the agency’s top agents, Susan courageously volunteers to go undercover into the field—both to avenge Bradley (her crush), and to prove her worth to her boss (Allison Janney) and everyone else who has undermined her.
Although Feig’s film starts off just like other McCarthy movies – making her the butt of broad jokes aimed at her weight and lack of qualifications at being a field agent – it soon upturns the audience’s expectations and transforms into a empowering feminist comedy and wickedly-smart parody of globe-trotting spy movies once Susan takes things into her own hands. From then on, its balls-to-the-wall comedic gold with McCarthy navigating between landing razor-sharp profanity-laden insults and thrilling action sequences effortlessly.
Spy wouldn’t be half as good without its fantastic supporting cast. Byrne, who was the MVP of last summer’s Neighbors continues her ascent towards comedy goddess with her turn here as the arrogant and materialistic arms dealer who wastes no opportunity to hurl an insult at Susan. Someone give this actress her own leading role! Her back-and-forth profane insult wars with McCarthy make up some of the film’s funniest moments, and had me laughing harder than any movie I’ve seen this year. Law is perfectly cast as the smoother than smooth American James Bond—slick, sexy and dapper. Allison Janney and Miranda Hart also provide a healthy dose of laughs as Susan’s insult-hurling boss and her anxiety-prone co-worker respectively.
But it’s Jason Statham who comes out on top as the film’s breakout comedy star. Poking fun at his tough guy persona, Statham plays Rick Ford, a misogynistic, overly-intense and colossally-dimwitted rogue agent whose ego and idiocy constantly threaten to undermine Susan’s operation. The beauty of Statham’s performance is that he plays the part with the same level of intensity and seriousness that he brings to his action roles, and he’s all the funnier because of it. I can only hope this role opens the door for him to work in more comedies.
Although the plot isn’t anything new or exciting, Feig’s screenplay and direction are smart enough to keep us laughing and entertained for two hours straight. The references and nods to the Bond franchise, such as the opening credits sequence and the visit to the gadget lab, are clever and a buffet for fans of the Bond franchise. Even the action sequences are expertly handled. A chase through the streets of Paris is a riot while a Jason Bourne-esque sequence in which Susan has to fight a knife-wielding assailant in a kitchen had the screening I watched the film at howling with laughter. Above all, this is just a wonderful time at the movies, and a career highlight for both Feig and McCarthy. Even if you’re not a fan of McCarthy’s movies in general, Spy is strong enough to change your opinion of the actress. And if the pair’s upcoming all-female Ghostbusters reboot is anywhere as good as this, we’re going to be in for a treat.
Running time: 120 minutes
Companies: 20th Century Fox
Rating: R (for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity)