Early on in Spy, an infestation of bats drops from the ceiling in the CIA’s basement. It’s never really explained. Just, in the world of this film, ace intelligence personnel must shrug their shoulders, swat away vermin, and carry on calling in drone strikes. Oh wow, I thought, this film is prepared to take on the nonpareil of silly secret agent movies, Austin Powers, random-joke-to-random-joke.
But, sadly for me, the bats were not a portent of more giddy zaniness to come. Instead, Spy‘s plot unfolds dully into a Europe-hopping tour of flimsy of excuses for Melissa McCarthy’s self-deprecating humor. That this film has done so well with critics is a testament to her commitment to the character of Susan Cooper, a dowdy CIA desk agent who, whenever it is convenient to move the story forward, stops acting like a fearful klutz and more like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy.
There is no denying McCarthy is funny, and so are the supporting players. (50 Cent had my favorite joke when he opens an Eastern European concert with a shout out to goulash.) I would watch anything with these guys working so hard to generate laughs. It’s just that I expected better.
Despite having ace d.p. Robert Yeoman and legit action star Jason Statham, the action in this movie isn’t anything to write home about. The James-Bond-on-his-most-self-assured-day orchestral score, by Theodore Shapiro, nailed a tone I wish the visuals had also managed. This is the second action spoof comedy team-up between Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig (who also gets full screenplay credit, although he did have his The Heat writer Katie Dippold on set). The Heat made me laugh more, and it did a better job, in my opinion, of sending up the genre upon which its sights were drawn.
Let’s talk a bit more about the inconsistencies in McCarthy’s character. Susan Cooper is clearly mistreated by many of her CIA colleagues, and despite being perceptive in her work, she can’t see how strongly she has been friend-zoned by Jude Law’s agent Bradley Fine. (Strangely, Law is inexplicably forced to use a bad American accent while other Brits — Statham and Miranda Hart — are allowed to speak the Queen’s while collecting US government paychecks.) We saw McCarthy be both hilarious and sympathetic in Bridesmaids and Identity Thief. But to carry off both requires a character that is credible. Spy tries to have its cake necklace and eat it by having Cooper be a master spy one minute and a clueless doof the next. She continually asserts herself and saves Statham’s character, yet puts up with the handsy handler played by Peter Serafinowicz. It’s a female empowerment movie where not one but two simulated rapes are played for laughs. (The second is when Serafinowicz’s Aldo ungracefully unbinds them. The first is when Cooper uses airplane controls to repeatedly slam the crotch of a dead body into Rose Byrne’s character’s face.)
Speaking of Byrne’s character, she’s a less-than-stellar foil. She would seem to be the big-bad villain, with an unlimited army of henchmen. But then the film reveals she’s easily duped and that her henchmen resources are down to a tall, pale weeping Northern European.
The potentials of the film are likewise diminished over its runtime. Still, it’s a decent time-killer and clearly my less-than-ecstatic reaction is outside the mainstream. If you like your comedy stirred, not shaken, check it out.