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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Spy (2015)

* * *

Director: Paul Feig
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Miranda Hart, Jude Law

As much as I loved Bridesmaids and enjoyed Melissa McCarthy in it, if you had told me in 2011 that she would become one of my favorite things about the summer movie season, I don't think I would have believed you. But 2013 brought The Heat, and McCarthy in all her foul-mouthed glory, and 2014 brought Tammy, which has some deep flaws but which I enjoyed nevertheless, and now comes Spy, a film which combines her ability to tap into the vulnerable humanity of a character and her facility with outsize moments of almost cartoonishly comic crassness to great effect. In that respect, Spy is second only to Bridesmaids, only this time McCarthy is the star and has her own scene-stealing supporting player in Miranda Hart to make the film ever so robust with laughs.

In Spy McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who works behind a desk and acts as the eyes and ears of field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) via an earpiece and special contact lenses that Bradley wears when he's on assignment. Though she qualified for the field herself after training, she was talked into staying behind the scenes by Bradley, who values her as the woman whose intelligence and quick thinking makes it possible for him to pull off the impossible and reap the glory, but doesn't really see her or the fact that she's infatuated with him. After Bradley is eliminated by Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who is in possession of a nuclear bomb that she's looking to sell to the highest bidder and reveals that she knows the identities of all the agency's field agents and will kill the rest of them if any come after her, Susan volunteers to enter the field herself to go after her. While the director of the agency, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney, a welcome presence as always) is uncertain, and exposed field agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) is incredulous, Susan is determined to prove herself by avenging Bradley's death and talks her way into the assignment, which Elaine stresses is to observe and report on Rayna's movements only.

Susan's assignment takes her first to Paris, where her intention to fly under the radar immediately goes out the window when Ford shows up determined to prove that only he is capable of getting the job done and then bungles things up at every turn in the process. Going incognito, Susan follows Rayna to Rome where she eventually drops her CIA-created alias and adopts one of her own creation, and then goes well-beyond "observe and report" to make contact with Rayna. After preventing Rayna from being assassinated by one of the apparently many people out to get her, and amusing her with a sartorial style that Rayna assumes must be a joke, Rayna decides to bring Susan with her to Budapest, where she will be meeting with Sergio De Luca (Bobby Canavale), the go-between who is arranging the sale of the nuke. Though her cover gets blown en-route, Susan quickly recovers and comes up with a new story, claiming to have been hired by Rayna's father to protect her, and tossing out her mousy, passive persona in favor of an assertive, trash-talking, take no prisoners persona who proves to be more capable than anyone would have suspected.

As writer/director Paul Feig (also director of Bridesmaids and The Heat) has stated, Spy isn't a spoof of the spy movie genre, but rather a funny spy movie. While there is a satirical element to Law's portrayal of Bradley Fine, who is depicted as if his only training was watching James Bond movies to become as debonair as possible and to learn how to toss out bon mots at the most opportune moments, and Statham is certainly sending up his own tough guy image as Rick Ford (and would walk away with every scene he's in were it not for how well he and McCarthy play off of each other, turning each of their exchanges into a duet of barbs, one-liners, and comebacks), Spy is actually pretty serious about its intent as a spy movie. Take away the gags and the jokes and leave only the plot, and you're still left with a pretty solid spy story involving betrayal, double (and triple) agents, elaborate fight scenes (including one incredibly violent scene between McCarthy and Nargis Fakhri in a kitchen), car chases, exotic international locales, and the high stakes of the race for control over a nuclear bomb. Spy ultimately works as well as it does because it has this solid foundation and builds the laughs on top of it.

The laughs in Spy come in many forms and with all the players getting their turn to drive the comedy. Statham is hilarious as the pompous Ford, a legend in his own mind whose favorite pastime is telling increasingly outlandish tales about himself, Byrne is wonderful as the dryly vicious Rayna (her performance here would be a comedic revelation were it not for her work in last year's Neighbors), and Miranda Hart is an absolute delight as Susan's friend and fellow desk agent Nancy, who eventually joins Susan in the field. But the film belongs to McCarthy, in whose hands Susan becomes a fully fleshed out, and very human, person. Susan is a woman who has been ignored and pushed to the background her entire life, who was raised to believe that that's where she belonged and that she could only be accepted by being meek and mild, but whose quiet demeanor hides a fierce intelligence and capability to get a job done. While Susan is sometimes the butt of a joke (as all the major characters are in turn), she succeeds because she's the smartest character in the film and, bit by bit, she slowly gains the confidence to prove it. Spy not only provides McCarthy with a great showcase for her comedic abilities, but a great character to showcase her acting abilities as well.

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