By the time a dismayed Agent Susan Cooper walks out of a hotel room dressed in a disguise that can only be accurately described as “tragically cat lady”– her second such disguise– it becomes abundantly clear that Spy is not primarily a parody of spy movies.
Well, okay, it is. There are plenty of jokes to be had in the service and expense of Bond, Bourne, and other espionage types with B names, but the core of Spy‘s most biting satire if not of secret agents, but of the career of its lead.
The plot: Every mission international man of mystery Bradley Fine (Jude Law) embarks upon, he is aided by his under-appreciated aide Susan Cooper, providing intel from the CIA’s rat-infested basement. After Fine is shot by evil heiress Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) while trying to find a nuke going to black market auction, Cooper volunteers to go into the field to finish Fine’s mission, contending with the assistance of co-worker Nancy (Miranda Hart), and the interference of loose-cannon spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham).
The role of Susan Cooper is custom tailored to Melissa McCarthy by writer/director and McCarthy’s frequent collaborator Paul Feig, and without her the movie and its satire wouldn’t work nearly as well. Since becoming a household name with her Oscar nominated (!) turn in Bridesmaids, McCarthy has found herself the star of at least one big budget comedy nearly every year since, with some, er, treating her with more respect than others. It’s no secret that McCarthy– and more specifically, her body– are treated as the punchline in a number of her movies (including the one she co-wrote with her husband). Paul Feig wrote a role and a movie well-suited to his frequent collaborator, deftly parodying the lazy typecast roles McCarthy frequently encounters. Spy (and its point-missing ad campaign) sees Cooper assuming the identities of flyover state white trash, cat lady, and more. The recurring joke throughout Spy is the many ways her talents are ignored in favor of lazy assumptions based on her appearance, whether it be through Bond-esque gadgets disguised as fungus spray and stool softener, or through characters comparing her to a gold-hearted, destitute Eastern European clown with misguided, condescending attempts at kindness.
Separating Spy from a movie that’s just incredibly self-aware in the ways in which it heaps indignities on its lead are the facts that McCarthy’s Agent Cooper is portrayed as being competent and the fact that the movie is, thankfully, actually really funny. McCarthy likes physical humor. Expect falls. Expect crotch shots. This slapstick never undercuts McCarthy’s character’s strengths and skills. A similar movie might make this character clueless as well as out of their depth; Cooper gets to be good at her job, if completely overwhelmed by her circumstances. Of course, it helps when your circumstances include Jason Statham.
Statham’s rogue agent Rick Ford, is one of the best parts of the movie. A parody of Daniel Craig style spy badasses, he is Cooper’s opposite, focused yet inept where Cooper is frazzled and capable. The cast in general deserves a round of applause; Jude Law and Rose Byrne both clearly relish in playing into their respective roles of Bond and Bond villainess, and British comic Miranda Hart snipes some of the best lines in the movie as Cooper’s co-worker and friend Nancy. Are enough people aware that Allison Janney is really funny? She’s great in Spy, playing the deadpan director Spy’s dysfunctional CIA. We get small tastes of Bobby Cannavale’s scenery chewing Bond villain, but never really enough to satisfy. Cannavale’s De Luca, and the wider world of evil untraceable-nuke-purchasing cohorts are largely left unexplored.
Like so many of the movies it draws from, the plot of Spy is kind of shaky, with betrayals and double-crosses and villains revealed to be puppets in grander schemes moving at a pace that can be hard to follow (particularly if you are, say, attempting to write about them a few days after viewing). Paul Feig likes to explore genre in his comedies, but shifts the focus to the people who inhabit these movies, instead of the movies themselves. As such, viewers going in looking for stinging parodies to the spy genre might be let down, and maybe turn to Archer and Kingsman for sharper satire. Spy in its role as a mass-appeal comedy packs in a lot of jokes into a light frame, some of which land better than others. Luckily, Spy has a pretty solid batting average.
Spy is a well made and occasionally biting summer comedy, and a perfect matinee palette cleanser between the heavy hitter action movies of the blockbuster season.