Monday, June 8, 2015

Review: Spy

by Patrick Bromley
This summer's worst-titled comedy is also one of its most ok movies!

Spy, the third collaboration between writer/director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy (after Bridesmaids and The Heat) is a brilliant vehicle for its star, who gets to do all the things on screen that have made her one of the biggest names in comedy in the last few years. She's foul, she's physical, she's awkward, she's sweet. But the strength of her performance and the incredible span of her character arc make this not just the ideal vehicle for her, but her best role to date. She's the whole show. Lucky for Spy, she really is the whole show.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a mild-mannered CIA analyst who sits at a desk and assists on every mission for super spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). While tracing a nuclear weapon hidden by spoiled brat terrorist Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, who somehow has become one of the most dependable comic actresses working today), the identities of every field agent are compromised, so Susan volunteers to go into the field for the first time ever undercover as a dowdy cat lady. So it's off and running to Paris, Italy and Budapest, where Susan becomes the expert spy she always had the potential of being and is helped/thwarted at every opportunity by fellow CIA super spy Rick Ford (a very funny Jason Statham), who can't stop bragging about his accomplishments long enough to let Susan save the day.
The best thing about Spy is that, coming off of junk like Identity Thief and Tammy, it's going to remind everyone why Melissa McCarthy deserves to be a big movie star. Yes, I think there will be people who dismiss it outright because it's "another Melissa McCarthy movie," which they equate with her being made fun of for being big and falling down. Yes, she falls down a few times. It's called physical comedy, and it didn't seem to be a problem when skinny white men did it for over 100 years. And there really aren't any jokes made about McCarthy's size per se, just the fact that she doesn't fit the bill of a traditional movie spy. We should consider this progress, especially when the movie spends its running time having McCarthy upend nearly every single one of our expectations without really calling attention to the fact. Feig is casual in the way he expresses images and characters that feel downright revolutionary for a studio film -- there is no "can you BELIEVE how feminist this is?" when most of the main characters in a summer action comedy are female and don't spend time talking about men and there's no moment at which the film feels impressed with itself for saying that this woman who you don't think could be a spy could actually be the very best spy. I love that.

But this is a comedy, and I didn't laugh quite as often as I hoped to. Like so many Hollywood comedies to spring up in the wake of The 40-Year Old Virgin, Spy feels overlong by about a half hour and edited in such a way that makes it feel sloppier than it should. Whether that's because Feig was cutting around improv and ad-libbing or because he just shot a ton of footage I really can't say, but the result is a film that feels shaggy when it should be airtight. There are laughs throughout the movie -- enough to justify a recommendation -- though they're mostly often tossed-off bits of dialogue or small character moments, not the jokes designed to hit the hardest. Still, a laugh is a laugh is a laugh.
It's not a particularly great spy movie either. Again, Feig isn't interested in parodying the genre; save for some Bond-inspired opening titles, there's nothing in Spy that exists to spoof the spy genre. It is straightforward in its approach, which has the detrimental effect of making the movie feel overly busy and plotty while at the same time shoring up just how strong McCarthy's performance is; she doesn't have to good in a goof of a spy movie, but in a real spy movie. Feig is trying to make an action movie that legitimately feels like an action movie, too, at which he is only somewhat successful. What Feig is doing doesn't appear to be a style parody. With the exception of one sequence involving throw up, he's not incorporating a bunch of overly familiar tropes as a way of taking the piss out of them -- he seems to think this is what action movies really look like. Someone might want to tell him, then, that speed ramping has been out of fashion for at least five years. On the plus side, Feig shares Seth Rogen's glee for graphic violence in a comedic context, giving the bloodshed a particularly nasty edge to it that scores laughs for its audaciousness. It's the rare comedy that can get away with showing a person's entire throat dissolving from acid.

If there's anything in Spy that skirts up against parody, it's Jason Statham's performance as asshole super spy Rick Ford. It's not anything he does in the performance (though his dialogue is ridiculous and wonderful), but rather his very casting that makes the film at least partially self-reflexive. While there's not a ton of genre commentary going on in Spy, I like that it makes a point of building up a plus-size woman into an action hero while exploding the myth of our testosterone-fueld he-man, turning it into a cartoonish exaggeration that's all talk and very little effective payoff. Does Feig want to destroy the traditional action movie? Of course not. It's obvious he's a fan. But he does argue that there are some other people that might be allowed to play in the same sandbox.
I wanted to really love Spy. Maybe my reaction to it has something to do with my expectations. After all, I wasn't expecting to be crazy about The Heat and I was pleasantly surprised, but I also think that movie benefited a great deal from the relationship between McCarthy and Sandra Bullock and the fact that Bullock got to carry at least half of it. Spy ends up covering a lot of the same territory -- female action heroes; casual, confident feminism; the importance of sisterhood and a demolishing of the ol' Bechdel test -- and while it's equally overlong and shaggy, at least it had the element of surprise. Spy is an important comedy and a pretty good one as far as recent studio comedies are concerned. If it's not great, well, that's probably an unfair standard to which I'm holding it. I continue to root for Paul Feig, whose voice is an important one in mainstream filmmaking even if he hasn't yet made what I'm sure is his best movie. And I continue to root for Melissa McCarthy, who here reminds us that her ascent to superstardom was not a novelty or a fluke. She works for it in Spy, and boy does she earn it.


  1. I was ready to pass on this until reading this, and now I'll probably check it out. The commercials were bland to the point that it seemed like they were cut to make you not want to see it, although one of them had a pretty funny bit of Statham dialogue regarding a face-off machine.

    1. Man, I agree. The trailers are so awful and after reading this review, I believe Spy was totally mis-marketed. I thought without a doubt this was going to be a full on spy spoof movie. Even the poster somewhat alludes to that.

    2. Well, now having seen Spy I have to say that this movie was marketed exactly to describe what it is. I thought it was most definitely a spy spoof and an unfunny one at that. Byrne and Statham were the best things about this movie and they had me laughing a few times. The only McCarthy movie I have seen is Heat, which I found surprisingly funny, so I was not going into Spy with any prejudgment against her nor with any other frame of reference. (I take that back - I saw the awful St. Vincent if you count that - I'm guessing that's probably the most out of character performance she's done in a film which I now would like to see more of).

      Unfortunately, I now see though what McCarthy's whole shtick is as she was doing the exact same thing in Heat. I really can't blame her though as comedians have done this forever on the big screen. Not to mention the lifespan of a successful comedian being relevant and funny in movies is very short, especially those from SNL. So I kind of think people need to chill out with the over exaggerated criticism of McCarthy and take it for what it is - either you like what she's doing or you don't. I can think of a ton of comedians who do the same shit in every movie - David Spade comes to mind because I didn't like his "act" and didn't like any of his films. Do I criticize him for his shtick? Nope, cause it's what he does and I have the option to watch or not. No reason to fault him for it and I'm sure he has a lot of fans who do like his "bit", just as McCarthy does.

      Regarding the movie, I just don't think it's good. If you like her act then you probably think it's funny. The writing is pretty lame as well. The "jokes" aren't funny except for some lines and brilliant delivery from Byrne and Statham. There's two ADR moments in the film that had me cringing (I hate obvious ADR!)
      and the Mission Impossible twist was evident from the beginning. The 50 Cent crap cheapens the film and Cannavale is pointless. If this movie is indicative of how the new Ghostbusters will be, boy are we in trouble. I actually feel the only saving grace for Ghostbusters is that there is no way it can be rated R therefore Feig will show if can make a funny movie without the "hey look, she says fuck a lot, that's funny!"

      Lastly, the article states (in regards to no jokes being made about McCarthy's size) "We should consider this progress, especially when the movie spends its running time having McCarthy upend nearly every single one of our expectations without really calling attention to the fact." I completely agree. The fact that it wasn't even mentioned was cool and I could see it as progress albeit baby steps. The Feig factor is also in play however as I would guess he most likely did this consciously.

  2. I think everyone's feelings are the same. Until reading this review I wasn't even considering seeing this movie. Matter fact I was so uninterested that I wasn't even gonna read the review. Now If the gf asks to see it I won't be as against it.

  3. Wow...I never thought this would be something I would effort to see, but I will give it a shot!

  4. Wow...I never thought this would be something I would effort to see, but I will give it a shot!

  5. Melissa McCarthy is a female John Candy. I'm not quite sure if that is a compliment or not. So far I think she's been on the good side of that.

  6. A revolutionary move would to do a remake of Haywire with McCarthy in the Gina Carano role, with no jokes in the movie or in the marketing. I would be in the theater opening night. I will not be in the theater any night for Spy.

  7. Dear everyone,

    Throw your preconceived notions out the window and go see Spy. It's quite enjoyable. The movie is worth it for Jason Statham alone.

  8. I really enjoyed this movie!! I was wondering what what you guys thought of Miranda Hart? Shr is quite a treasure to us Brits.

  9. Agree with all of this except that I actually laughed so hard at some points I got a sore throat. Absurd comedy really gets to me sometimes and this movie went super absurd at times.

    Also: speed ramping might not be hip but I'm always here for some good slow motion.

  10. How does he get the plans back to his home base? He whips out his high tech spy camera and takes pictures of all the documents, of course! Sound like the story line of hundreds of Hollywood classics?