With “Spy,” Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig have made a fine, mostly well-observed movie that is both a spoof of spy flicks and a functioning spy flick itself. I think it works because it doesn’t just satirize the obvious tropes of spy flicks, but goes after the deeper assumptions and foundations of those kinds of movies, and really, most movies. McCarthy does the best work of her career playing a woman who gets passed over again and again because she’s not one of the beautiful people – like Jude Law, Morena Baccarin, Jason Statham and Rose Byrne, who surround her in the spy business. And the movie business.
McCarthy plays Jude Law’s handler, feeding him vital info from a (rat-infested) basement office so that he can look cool taking out the bad guys she just told him we’re coming. She’s also got a bit of a crush on him, of which is, of course, completely unaware. But then something goes south, all the good-looking agents are exposed, and it’s up to McCarthy to get out from behind her desk and into the field to save the day.
Of course McCarthy is just as competent, and often more competent, as the rest of them, but when everyone — especially her boss, Allison Janney — looks at her, they see a cat lady, a Mary Kay mom, a grade school teacher or a telemarketer. I’d like to say there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but the movie makes it clear that being a spy is way cooler. The movie finds a balance – woozy at times, to be sure — between slapstick physical comedy rooted in McCarthy’s size, and portraying her as actually pretty good at this spy thing. I could have done without some of the fat jokes: McCarthy on a Vespa is not nearly as funny and McCarthy telling Jason Statham what a jackass he is. It’s pretty obvious that, just as her character is competent in spycraft, McCarthy is a gifted comedienne; she’s funny, and she’s plus size, she’s not funny because she’s plus size. The movie sometimes gets that, and sometimes forgets.
Statham is fantastic as a dim-witted agent who excels at the physical side, but can’t tell the difference between a lake and the ocean. Rose Byrne is great, in a risky performance, as, well, excuse the language, but a complete asshole. She’s funny because she’s not trying to be cute. But the movie belongs to McCarthy, who brings both an energy and intelligence to the role that’s absolutely vital, and an anger and weariness to the way she’s treating that gives her performance dimension — and makes it that much funnier. I wonder how much of this movie is autobiographical. I wonder how many of this character’s experiences are pulled from McCarthy’s experiences in Hollywood.
There are a few places where the film seems to be trying to make things funnier, and just falls on its face. The primary one is the infestation of — bats or mice or whatever — in the CIA basement. Not needed, not funny.We also don’t need the gore, or the puke. Just distracting. But when it sticks to comedy rooted in character, it succeeds. It’s easily one of the funniest, warmest, smartest movies of the year.