Review: Spy

I Spy McCarthy, but Statham Steals the Show

It’s true that Melissa McCarthy has become something of a feminist icon thanks to Bridesmaids, a film whose decidedly unladylike troupe of females rocked patriarchy’s boat with this resounding message: in comedy as in most other areas, a woman can do a “man’s” job, and often better than he can. McCarthy is living evidence of this, appealing to the male-coded subgenre of gross-out comedy while still being very much female. The problem is, she’s not always funny, and more importantly, her films are not always funny in the way they use her. For although the increasing recognition being given to female comedians is refreshing, the fact remains that Spy, the latest effort from Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, focuses too much on its heroine’s physique.

Yes, much of this comedy is self-aware, poking fun less at McCarthy herself than the entire mean-spirited tradition of “fat people jokes” in general (Amy Nicholson of the Village Voice says it well when she labels Spy “a comedy of exasperation where, for once, the joke isn’t on McCarthy, but on everyone who can’t see her skills,” that is, her talent as an actress). But I also concur with Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly, who notes, “While I get that part of McCarthy’s shtick is beating others to the punch of how she’s not what a typical leading lady looks like, I’m beginning to wish she didn’t feel the need to anymore.” I would add that many attempts at parody often indulge in the very things they criticize – on the one hand, Spy is indeed “exasperated” at the excessive emphasis the comedy of today places on physical appearance, but on the other hand, it still encourages us to get a laugh out of McCarthy herself. Parody or not, when Spy turned the roast turned toward McCarthy’s body for the umpteenth time, I got impatient.

Looking elsewhere, though, I found that Spy delivers much that is refreshing, entertaining, and occasionally brilliant. As you might have guessed, the story is a riff on the spy movie, made explicitly clear by the film’s Bondian opening credits (silhouettes fire slo-mo bullets against a shimmery backdrop. No undulating women here though). Like February’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Feig’s genre venture ticks virtually every box on the spy-movie checklist – men in nice suits, cool gadgets, international locales, genocidal supervillains. Spy’s nostalgia is ultimately overtaken by its status as a comedy – the film feels less like a funny spy movie than a version of Bridesmaids that incidentally takes place in 007-verse – but there is still something palette-cleansing (to paraphrase a scene from the movie) about seeing this beloved tradition brought to life with vigor and cheer.

At the start of the movie, both (physical) vigor and cheer are on the mind of Susan Cooper (McCarthy), a deskbound CIA analyst cooing orders into the earpiece of her agent in the field, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), whose surname describes all he is to her – love object, sex object, the perfect specimen. He is a gentle parody of Bond’s good looks, and just one of the film’s many endearing – if not terribly inventive – nods to the genre. Her infatuation is brutally cut short when Fine is murdered while on a mission to locate the whereabouts of a nuclear weapon. His killer, the posh Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, essentially reprising her character from Bridesmaids) tauntingly reveals that she knows the identity of every agent from Fine’s unit. In light of this complication, Cooper volunteers to take Fine’s place in the field as a low-profile agent, to the skepticism of her boss (Allison Janney) and the outrage of Agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham).

This Statham, who has played self-serious badasses in a string of B-movie actioners ranging from the modestly successful Transporter franchise to straight-to-DVD non-events, is surprisingly Spy’s most inspired comedic stroke. The guy is fascinating, because he seems incapable of irony – when Statham’s Ford lists off his resume of death-defying absurdities to an incredulous Cooper (“I once drove a car off a freeway, on top of a train, while I was on fire. Not the car, I was on fire.”), we are convinced that he truly believes in his own awesomeness. And yet the scene is obviously played for laughs, as indicated by the content of what he says and Cooper’s reactions. Thus, the film successfully generates an air of satire, and the intense sincerity that Statham projects becomes Spy’s strongest asset.

When actors, in an attempt at self-parody, wink excessively at the audience, the result is often smug and more than a little annoying. Statham does no winking. He acts as he normally acts, which brought him great success in The Transporter series – entire armies of thugs are felled beneath his no-nonsense fists of fury. Here, however, that same zealous commitment to all things macho and physical is shown to be futile, even counterproductive – for all his boastful talk, Ford is painfully incompetent, and his epic failures are easily the film’s most hilarious moments. Kudos to Statham for allowing his movie star image to be lampooned, for playing serious even as the film laughs in his face. This tension between earnestness and all-out clownery produces comic gold.

Statham aside, the most surprising thing about Spy is its action. It isn’t good per se – it’s a far cry from the action in any of the new Bond films, the lukewarm Quantum of Solace included – but it had just enough oomph in its choreography and plot-level intrigue fueling it that I actually discovered myself becoming involved in the life-and-death struggles of the characters. As a result, I found these scenes less funny than maybe Feig intended, and in this sense, the action could be an unexpected weakness of the film – when you’re going for comedy, it’s actually possible to make genre elements too compelling, as perverse as that sounds.

Still, one also has to take a film for what it is, and across several scenes, maybe Feig did intend on toning down the laughs and paying tribute to the genuinely thrilling escapades of past spy movies. I can’t say for sure. What’s for certain, however, is that Spy, a film that is still for the most part a comedy, has casually matched and even surpassed the action seen in other “action” movies not burdened by the need to be funny (Olivier Megaton is a good example of a contemporary filmmaker who is completely inept at directing action). These films have just one thing to do right, and somehow they’ve been outdone by a movie whose interest in car chases and fistcuffs is secondary, maybe even tertiary. This pathetic scenario speaks volumes about the efforts (or lack thereof) of most action-movie auteurs working today.

Anyway, Spy is fun, and although it falls short of Bridesmaids, it still deserves a recommendation, especially if you’re looking for a comedy that isn’t bad. Going back to the feminism point, though, there was one more thing that I found remarkable about Spy, that makes the film perhaps more than just a homage but a worthy addition to the spy genre. In open defiance of the classical Bond tradition, Feig’s movie features not just deadly male killers but female ones as well, not only pretty women but the appearance-obsessed Bradley Fine to accompany them. An over-adherence to conventional femininity is satirized through Rose Byrne’s character, but the masculine equivalent receives equal flak in Statham’s Rick Ford. You see where I’m going with this. In its even-handed treatment of the sexes, in the way it gives agency to and makes fun of both male and female alike, Spy is a feminist update of the Bondian formula, and although it’s by no means the first film to do so, it’s still a welcome anomaly in a genre steeped in male-centric narratives. The movie’s penultimate scene perhaps thematizes feminism a bit too ham-fistedly, but as a whole, this aspect of the film makes Spy an encouraging symptom of our changing times.

Grade: B


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