In the four years since Bridesmaids marauded across the box office landscape and helped establish a new golden age for female comedy, it is tough to deny that Melissa McCarthy has taken the world by storm. As star Kristen Wiig has focused on more personal, independent projects like The Skeleton Twins, Girl Most Likely and Welcome to Me, McCarthy has taken the reigns as comedy’s new superstar, though her work without Bridesmaids director Paul Feig has been hit-or-miss at best. Feig moved McCarthy from support to co-lead in his follow-up picture, The Heat, and has now dropped the “co-” entirely with his new film Spy (noticeably the first of the three he also wrote himself), a project that rests entirely on her comedic shoulders.
McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a low level analyst for the CIA, confined to a rodent-infested basement as she assists the field work of super spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is killed by Rayna (Rose Byrne), the ritzy Bulgarian daughter of a slain weapons dealer who inherited a nuclear bomb she’s planning to sell to a dangerous element (Bobby Cannavale), Susan convinces her superior officer (Allison Janney) to let her go into the field to track Rayna and recover the nuke. Aided by her loyal if bumbling friend Nancy (Miranda Hart) and the less-than-help of other field agents played by the likes of Morena Baccarin, Peter Serafinowicz and Jason Statham, Susan must navigate the thorny world of international espionage while weighing her desire for revenge against the needs of the mission.
This is a different sort of McCarthy character than her previous collaborations with Feig, one that de-emphasizes the gruffness of the roles that made her a huge comedy star. Susan Cooper has a depth of sweetness at her core, something much more akin to Sookie St. James from Gilmore Girls than Megan from Bridesmaids. She is also eminently capable, an agent marginalized for her looks hiding the fact that she graduated at the top of her class and is remarkably physically adroit when the need arises. The CIA of Spy is predicated on the patriarchy, where the only woman who can succeed in the field looks like a supermodel, and the rest of the females are hidden behind desks and in basements. It is a sly extrapolation of the James Bond formula, one that surmises that Moneypenny is much more than a pretty face, and perhaps Bond keeps her where she is due to a perceived threat of his station. Susan’s evolution from meek support staff to top flight field agent is handled with believability and care, aided by the idiocy and bravado of those around her who doubt her skills.
Spy is a fun action espionage comedy for much of its early moments, but it kicks into high gear when Cooper is forced to go undercover in Rayna’s entourage. Rose Byrne has quietly and forcefully turned herself into a comedy juggernaut in performances like Bridesmaids and Neighbors, and her work here might be her best yet. She plays Rayna as a spoiled rotten socialite with no regard for other humans, constantly ridiculing the dress, food choices and actions of those she considers below her. Byrne is at the top of her game here, poured into ultra-tight chic dresses with impossibly high hair and impossibly high heels, a sour expression permanently etched onto her face. Every moment she is on screen is a joy, and she continues to have immaculate comedic timing with McCarthy. Equally impressive is Jason Statham, whose Rick Ford is the ultimate buffoon, a pastiche of every other character he’s played in other films turned up to eleven, a boorish borderline psychopath who believes that Face/Off is a real thing and that he could reattach his arm himself when severed. Indeed, the supporting cast is uniformly strong, but this really is McCarthy’s film, her first true starring role that has taken advantage of her skills as a comedienne.
Feig is not an action director by trade, and much of the set pieces of Spy are shot with a workman’s touch, low on visual flair but clear and purposeful. There is one exception, a kinetic hand-to-hand fight in a kitchen that plays out like a comedic Bourne Identity. Even without the directorial wizardry of a James Bond film, Spy is a raucous action comedy with a refreshingly female twist. It is McCarthy’s best role of her new renaissance, with the jokes flying fast and loose, hitting far more than they miss with more than a handful of killer lines (a personal favorite is the assertion that one of Rayna’s outfits makes her “look like a slutty dolphin trainer”). It starts a little slow, but once things really get going it manages to consistently entertain through the rest of its two hours, the sort of run time that can be dangerous for a comedy (something Judd Apatow could well learn). The marketing for this film made it seem to be far goofier than it is (most trailers indicated little more than Paul Blart: Mall Cop but with spies), but luckily Spy offers far more than just cheap laughs, making for a thoroughly satisfying and well-rounded experience.