Deep Focus: Spy
Paul Feig’s Spy is a piquant pick-me-up. Unlike his borderline-insane buddy-cop farce The Heat (13), Feig’s espionage comedy hurtles along like a real action film. The tension crackles and the audience cackles as the CIA strives to derail the sale of an ultra-portable, terrorist-ready nuclear device. Spy riffs on the glamour and jeopardy of globetrotting adventures. Filled with chases, showdowns, and improbable escapes, this movie derives its charm from every ingredient being just a little off.
In the film’s rollicking, high-stakes opening, you have a minute to contemplate how entertaining Jude Law might have been as a glamorous 007. Then, as CIA agent Bradley Fine, he commits an accidental execution due to an explosive sneeze. Later, you have a second to consider how perfect Jason Statham would be as a bruised-knuckle 007. Then his CIA agent, ultra-macho Rick Ford, reveals himself as an indomitable dolt, convinced, for example, that the agency has an easy-on, easy-off face-replace machine.
Spy is one of the most genial and affectionate spoofs since the Star Trek satire Galaxy Quest, yet it generates belly laughs that are closer to Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein or Stan Dragoti’s Love at First Bite. Feig fine-tunes his handling of his muse and star, Melissa McCarthy. In a welcome cool-off from The Heat, he doesn’t push her talent for uninhibited primal attacks on anyone who gets in her way. In this film, her outbursts arrive just when she, and the audience, need them.
McCarthy plays ex-schoolteacher Susan Cooper, who hoped for a cataclysmic life change when she joined the CIA. Now she’s a super-competent analyst in Langley’s basement who empowers her pet field agent Bradley by whispering sweet wisdom into his earpiece about his targets and escape plans, and how many enemies lurk behind the next closed door. Women like Susan and her close colleague, Nancy B. Artingstall (Miranda Hart), get no respect, except from each other, though they multitask on multiple computers and can ID villains or call in air strikes with the accuracy of digital stopwatches. It makes sense that Susan would develop a crush on Law’s Bradley, not merely because of his dashing looks and easy elegance, but also because he appreciates her skill and says they’re a dream team. When a Bulgarian femme fatale, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), takes Bradley out of the action while auctioning the nuke to the highest bidder, Susan contends that she alone is both knowledgeable and “invisible” enough to track Rayna and unravel her scheme. In the thrill of the hunt, Susan disobeys her boss, deputy director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney), who orders her to stay on the sidelines. Like Statham’s uncontrollable he-man bumbler, Susan goes rogue, kicking the comedy and action into rough-and-tumble overdrive.
I feared that after all the ersatz earthiness of The Heat, Feig would bend too far in a “nice” direction, turning the CIA basement into a geeky sorority with Susan as role model or den mother. But the movie is mischievous from the beginning, depicting subterranean Langley as a realm so neglected that it’s filled with vermin—a bat cave divided into work stalls. More important, Susan is too smart and talented to be pathetic. Feig, who created the seminal high-school show Freaks and Geeks, imbues Susan and Nancy with a sardonically cliquey us-against-them attitude toward field agents, especially chic, impeccably curvy Karen Walker (an amusingly suave Morena Baccarin, who played Brody’s wife on Showtime’s Homeland). Susan never stops resisting bureaucratic views that a single woman past a certain age must be a cat lady, a sexless eccentric, or a mother figure. She’s not a 40-year-old virgin—some guy named Jerry left her three years ago—and she hasn’t stopped seeing herself as a sexual being.
Susan is quick to object when Elaine sticks her with ever-frumpier fake identities, or when the movie’s version of Q (Michael McDonald) saddles her with secret weapons disguised in demeaning toiletries, like extra-large hemorrhoid pads suffused with chloroform. There’s a wonderful shot of Susan floating down a swank Roman boulevard and entering a casino in haute couture. For a few sensational moments she gets to be her own sensual vision of herself. She’s infectiously giddy and seductive. The aura doesn’t last—after all, this movie is Spy, not Summertime—but it marks a giant step forward for McCarthy.
In Feig’s Bridesmaids (11), he and McCarthy turned the sexual aggressiveness of a hefty woman into a running joke that many thought uproarious. I found it cheap and exploitative, even if it was self-exploitative. In The Heat, they tried to transform her rotund, foulmouthed cop into a rabid Falstaffian figure, a triumphant id, and failed for lack of generosity or poetry. Worst of all was Ben Falcone’s Tammy (14), in which McCarthy (who co-wrote the script with Falcone, her husband), went straight for bull-in-the-china-shop shenanigans, basing their comedy solely on her size and appetite. Fatty Arbuckle refused to do scenes that highlighted his fat, like getting stuck in a window or a doorway. Not McCarthy as Tammy. In the would-be hilarious robbery scene, the laughs were designed to come from Tammy’s inability to soar over a fast-food counter or to resist packaged pie. She came on like the brash, needy, misanthropic love child of Rosie O’ Donnell and Krusty the Clown. The hijinks and the pathos were both dead weight.
In Spy, Susan flops to the road instead of rolling over a car hood, but the sight gag works because the logic is impeccable. Susan is physically powerful: her mistake is trying to follow every move of an acrobatic assassin (Nargis Fakhri). When she fights the same woman in the close quarters of a Budapest restaurant kitchen, Susan turns into Spartacus, using every tool and food at hand to fend off attacks and deliver glancing blows. You half expect McCarthy, like Kirk Douglas, to dunk Fakhri’s head into a boiling stew pot. From there on in, she’s a powerhouse. The running joke in this film is that svelte ladies with thin arms lack the strength to push a gun across the floor.
In Spy, McCarthy’s baggy-pants glory is that she manages to be both comedian and straight man to a cast of happy megalomaniacs. She’s always been a master of timing, getting laughs either by going matter-of-fact with her epithets or delivering them with a sustained intensity that would challenge the lungs of a deep-sea diver. In Spy she creates a character that will contain those extremes. Susan is at once self-aware and hilariously unaware. She strives to stay on top of her dueling impulses: when Bradley says he could kiss her out of gratitude, she says she would greet that gesture with “an open mouth.” Even after she winces, you don’t know whether her reply is a would-be smooth provocation or a Freudian slip. Equally funny is Law’s narcissistic obliviousness to her infatuation. Law exuberantly exercises his knack for parodying his own sleek allure. Susan thinks he feels for her when he looks deep into her worshipful eyes; Law makes clear that for Bradley, it’s like looking into a mirror.
With McCarthy as a sturdy anchor, the rest of the cast acts at full tilt. Janney, as the no-nonsense CIA boss, brings out the unconscious humor of a thoroughly humorless woman, too intent on completing the job at hand to muddle around in quirks of personality or emotion. Miranda Hart, a British comedy star, brings a giggle-provoking gawkiness to Susan’s sister-in arms, a woman even more lost than Susan outside of Langley’s basement. Hart looks brittle one second, plastic the next. She turns her mouth into an “upside-down kidney bean” when fantasizing about gorgeous Karen crying herself to sleep at night, yet when Susan runs through a litany of her mother’s downbeat homilies, including “Give up your dreams,” she responds with the blank, semi-bored empathy of a pal who’s heard it many times before. Feig has a roving eye for talent: he had the sense to cast Irish comic Chris O’Dowd as Kristen Wiig’s romantic solution in Bridesmaids. Hart rewards his confidence by conveying how Nancy looks after and looks up to Susan, though at 6 foot 1, she’s also looking down on her.
Byrne is a hoot as Rayna, an icy, arms-dealing beauty who boasts an over-cultivated accent, the hair of Dracula’s prom queen, and dialogue that’s nonstop disparagement, whether she’s referring to Susan’s high-class getup as an “abortion” or, at the height of affection, telling her that she brings to mind “a sad little Bulgarian clown.” Nothing cracks Rayna’s hauteur or her makeup, not even the full fury of Susan’s (and McCarthy’s) unleashed powers of invective. At a highpoint of collaboration that includes Feig and costume designer Christine Bieselin Clark, Susan says Rayna looks like “a slutty dolphin-trainer” and you know exactly what she means.
As a Statham fan, I hoped he’d be able to reveal unexpected finesse. But it proves equally satisfying to see and hear him go over the top, mouth motoring and eyes blazing. Rick Ford speaks in macho bravado the way Rayna trucks in insults. It’s as if he’s always playing can-you-top-this, even when he’s on his own.
Feig keeps pulling funny or incongruous people out of his sleeve, like Bobby Cannavale, 50 Cent, and, best of all, Peter Serafinowicz as a randy CIA driver named Aldo, who projects a mad Mediterranean-lover image and strives to live up to it. Here, Feig is part Lord of Misrule and part ringmaster, maintaining spontaneity and coherency. When Rick shows up in a poor boy’s cap that makes Nancy think he stepped out of Newsies, her quip might be an ad-lib, but who knows? Unlike Bridesmaids, which split in half and wallowed in pathos and vulgarity, and The Heat, which peaked early and spun its wheels, Spy capers merrily along. It’s a Mad magazine parody and the real thing rolled into one. It’s like Spy vs. Spy—vs. Spy.