There’s often a very fine line between winking homage and satire. It basically comes down to a matter of whether or not the subject material is being laughed with or being laughed at. It’s a matter of embracing the absurdities inherent in the subject, and enjoying them despite or because of those absurdities, rather than just pointing out how silly it all is. It might seem pedantic to parse the whole thing out, but it’s an important distinction to make in the case of Spy, which extends the “winking homage” style not only to the superspy genre of films but to its characters, as well.
Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), is a desk-bound CIA analyst, constantly sending information to the earpiece of dashing spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is unable to complete a mission to capture nuclear arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), Susan agrees to take his place to finish the job, even though she has no field experience. Not only is Susan the most knowledgeable about the mission, but as Boyanov has learned the identities of the CIA’s top agents, Susan’s the only agent who can rely on anonymity.
If that sounds like a contrived setting, that’s entirely on purpose, and damned if writer/director Paul Feig doesn’t make it seem completely logical. Take away the comedic aspects of the film, and you have a fairly typical action tale about a spy tracking down a nuclear device before it can be sold to various European bad guys. Feig’s intent isn’t to lampoon the superspy genre or to re-invent the Bond. His intent is pretty clearly to highlight the ridiculous nature of those films simply by letting their most common tropes play out, but with a decidedly un-Bond protagonist.
The comedy in Spy mostly revolves around seeing a woman like McCarthy reacting to the basic tropes of the action genre. Casting McCarthy as an action hero in and of itself seems like a punchline, but McCarthy is more than in on the joke. It’s slightly metatextual in that not a single character in the film takes McCarthy seriously as an agent in the field, much like how McCarthy herself has often had to struggle to find respect as a woman and person of size in a male-dominated, appearance-focused field.
But make no mistake, McCarthy is more than up for the task. She’s simply one of the funniest women working in comedy films today, and she makes a perfect lead for the film. She seems to sympathize with and fully inhabit Cooper, who’s a much better agent than anyone gives her credit for. McCarthy even pulls out a fair amount of kick-ass, doing a good portion of her own fighting and stunt work. In the film’s second act, Cooper and a would-be assassin/supermodel have an insanely choreographed knife fight in the cramped confines of a restaurant kitchen. Even veteran action stars might have a hard time pulling it off, but McCarthy does the job with an ease and aplomb that is simply staggering to watch.
Her supporting cast sometimes rises to McCarthy’s level, sometimes not. Jude Law is a fine Bond-alike, while Jason Statham (as one of Fine’s fellow agents) seems to be enjoying himself immensely as a parody of his own action film persona, mixed with a hearty dose of Inspector Clouseau. Miranda Hart, playing another awkward/surprisingly competent desk analyst and Susan’s best friend, is just as funny as McCarthy is, and the two play off each other quite well. There are even great, pitch-perfect supporting turns from Allison Janney as McCarthy’s humorless boss and Peter Serafinowicz as a randy Italian agent helping Cooper out in Rome. The only cast member that comes off as stiff is Rose Byrne, and it’s a shame. As Boyanov, she’s a fantastically effective alpha bitch, but she often seems as if she’s rushing to get to the next scene, and her line deliveries feel like they’re coming from an entirely different, less self-aware film.
The beauty of a film like Spy is that it’s never laughing at its protagonist. While the other characters are quick to point out how Cooper is in no way the typical spy, the film itself has more confidence in Cooper than she does in herself. Once Cooper finally finds the inner strength she’s denied herself for years as Fine’s go-to intel gal, the film really starts to shine. It’s not surprising, seeing as how Feig’s previous collaborations with McCarthy (on Bridesmaids and The Heat) have been some of her best comedic roles. Cooper may be on a quest to prove herself, but McCarthy doesn’t have anything left to prove. She’s funny, period, and that’s just a fact.
Even if the film drags a bit toward the end and seems about 10 minutes too long, it works equally well as a comedy and as an action film. It has the laughs, it has the stunts, and it’s simply a fun, whirlwind of a time that gives the old Bond formula a swift—yet affectionate—kick in the 007s.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B