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Finally, I can feel 100% good about “defending” Melissa McCarthy.
Don’t get me wrong: I’d be a fan no matter what – McCarthy is one of the most gifted screen comics working today. However, while a natural born-and-bred movie star all the same, she finds herself in the difficult position where certain facts of her existence are so far outside the “typical” for a movie star (re: age, weight, being a woman who excells at “blue humor” and broad physical comedy) tend to turn her very presence in a film into a “statement” – one that frequently draws responses oozing with an inexplicable vitriol that can’t help but make even the least chivalrous cad rise up and say “Hey! Leave her alone, jerk!”
Unfortunately, actors are tied to their movies and their roles, and as such full-throated endorsements of McCarthy as not only possessing great talent but having the right to show it off in movies have had to come bundled with caveats… namely that the movies themselves weren’t often all that good. Her starmaking supporting turn in BRIDESMAIDS as the most memorable female version ever of the kinds of raunchy party-animal role pioneered by Belushi, Farley and Kevin James has thus far been a the high point of a rocky subsequent run that’s included dismal entries like IDENTITY THIEF, underwhelming fare like THE HEAT and the genuinely abominable TAMMY. (Though she was excellent in the indie dramedy ST. VINCENT and continues to do fine work on the comfortably-ordinary sitcom MIKE & MOLLY.)
But now, with SPY, there’s no reason for any equivocations or asterisks: This is as perfect a star-vehicle as has been conceived for a comedian since Adam Sandler pulled on his blue suit for THE WEDDING SINGER. It’s the most complete screen performance of her career to date, a career-best for writer/director Paul Feig and will easily end up being one of the funniest comedies of the Summer. The longevity of comedies can be hard to gauge (I’m glad to see people other than me finally coming around to WALK HARD) but right now SPY feels like an instant classic.
The first and best thing that the film does right is to focus on McCarthy’s ability to inhabit a character rather than projecting someone’s idea of a “stock persona,” i.e. THE HEAT being essentially “What if Megan from BRIDESMAIDS was a cop?” Here, she’s Susan Cooper, an office-bound CIA Agent whose main job is being the voice in the ear of (and second set of eyes for) a 007-style badass gentleman spy played by Jude Law: He does the fighting, shooting, spying and killing, she tells him where the bad guys are coming from via satellite and calls in airstrikes if he gets in a fix.
Sadly, she’s also nursing a huge crush to which he’s oblivious to the point of genuine cruelty. But that doesn’t stop her from swearing vengeance when Law’s Agent is murdered in the field by the femme fatale daughter of a recently-deceased supervillain (Rose Byrne) who reveals that she knows the names and faces of every active CIA field operative; meaning that the only hope to stop her from selling a stolen nuke to terrorists is the send an Agent whose never actually been in the field before – an Agent like Susan.
Pretty standard plotting, right? Swap around a few details and you can easily imagine this as a Will Ferrell or Kevin James vehicle (hell, it’s close to the same setup as the long-forgotten Steve Carrell update of GET SMART). But then, SPY goes and does something so off-formula for this kind of movie I wanted to spontaneously applaud:
There’s NO “Turning Susan into a real spy” training montage. Really. NONE.
Instead, it turns out that we’ve already underestimated Susan Cooper: In addition to being great tactical support, she’s also on-record with The Agency as a highly-capable hand-to-hand combatant and a master gunfighter – by all rights, she should’ve been a field agent already… but her crummy self-esteem let her be convinced that she was suited to remain her trainer (Law’s) backup. Huh. That’s different.
As you may have guessed by now, this is the “secret” of SPY: It’s a super-spy origin story as metaphor for “invisible women” in the workplace – and also, it seems, for McCarthy specifically overcoming her typecasting. Susan is flying high on the idea of being a “real” Agent at last… only to find herself deflated when she learns that the disguises and gadgets The Agency has prepared for her are all built around tacky “fat lady” stereotypes (“cat lady,” “splurging divorcee”) that handily conform to the kind of roles the actress is (likely) offered over more “glamorous” parts. Funny meta-gag, but McCarthy plays it with an extra undercurrent of real pain as Susan is continuously reminded of how unflatteringly (and inaccurately) her “friends” and co-workers see her.
The net effect of this is that we find ourselves rooting for Susan not simply to succeed, but to succeed on her own terms. Sure, she’s been ordered to “only” follow and report on her target, but we want her to kick ass. We want her to get into high-speed chases, beat down bad guys HAYWIRE-style (McCarthy acquits herself excellently in fight scenes), blow away waves of henchmen and jump onto the legs of a fleeing helicopter because we want her to win and show everybody else up.
Nowhere does this work better than a risky but rewarding third-act digression where Susan decides to toss off her Agency-approved cover and glamour-up to ingratiate herself into her quarry’s entourage. It’s a classic “hero’s bloom” moment that impressively one-ups the similar reveal of “cleaned-up” Eggsy in KINGSMEN and doubles as a handy villain-defining opportunity by having Byrne spit casual “mean girl” venom on her efforts (not that Cooper doesn’t get her back, branding her foe’s traditional super-villainess decorative-catsuit look as “slutty dolphin-trainer.”)
On top of all that good-vibes agreeability, though, SPY is simply really damn funny. The gags come fast and land with killer frequency, and McCarthy seamlessly transitions from comic-relief to put-upon “straightwoman” for a good deal of screentime while the more colorful side-characters get to do the more elaborate business. Amazingly, the secret weapon turns out to be none other than a perfectly-cast Jason Statham – who’s done comedy before but never exactly this well – as a legendarily-badass Agent chasing the same case as Cooper. He’s playing the same character he usually does, i.e. a guy whose (supposed) battlefield heroics are so over-the-top that you have to assume he’s either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid… but this time the answer really is “stupid.” With a touch more screentime, he could easily have stolen the movie right out from under the star.
I won’t call it flawless (too many action comedies don’t bother to go for action-level cinematography, and there’s a few Act 3 plot-turns that feel too convenient and unlikely) but SPY is the real deal. There isn’t a funnier comedy in theaters right now, and even if you think you’ve already “given up” on Melissa McCarthy you owe it to yourself to give it a look. I loved this one.