Saturday, June 6, 2015


 4 / 5 

On paper, everything about Spy indicates the kind of movie I'd hate.  True, I may have enjoyed the lowbrow humor of Bridesmaids, but quickly grew tired of the "shocking," gross-out comedies it spawned.  Outside of the early Pink Panther movies, I've never seen a spy spoof that actually made me laugh -- and those were funny because I was a kid.  Melissa McCarthy has become so exposed she's starting to grate on me.

In short, I went in to Spy ready to hate it.  And it won me over in just about every way a movie possibly could.

It's funny, it's clever, it's got an actual story, and it presents McCarthy with a role that's actually a character, not just a bunch of improper mannerisms masquerading as humor.  It even manages a little heart, but that's certainly not its goal, nor should writer-director Paul Feig be either praised or condemned for that sweet little trick.

Plus, Spy offers a veritable travelogue of European cities without the clumsiness of bumping in to tourists.  The sightseeing alone is almost worth the price of admission, so it's just a big, big plus that the lovely cinematography is backed up by sight gags, verbal gags, even long-running gags that finally pay off in the end.  Spy is a sleekly designed piece of comedy machinery that throws in some action set-pieces that are unexpected and expertly conceived.

Spy is a full-fledged movie.  It's not an Airplane!-style movie where every shot is set up for a joke.  It's not a girls-behaving-badly movie in which the humor stems from the male-driven observation: "Hey, women shouldn't do things like that." Spy avoids all that because it tells a spy movie through the eyes of the CIA's least-likely (and most  poorly trained) special agent.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is an actual, trained agent, make no doubt.  But her skills might be a little rusty, since her job as a CIA analyst is to sit in front of a computer in the basement and talk with with spies stationed all around the would.  Looking like Judy the Time-Life operator, she instructs them on what exactly they need to be doing at any given moment: Run, duck, shoot, jump, hide.  Analysts like Cooper see it all, they're just not out in the field.

That changes for Susan.  Against better judgment, her supervisor (droll, spot-on Allison Janney) reluctantly agrees to send Susan into the field for an intelligence-gathering assignment.  She's not to engage the enemy, just learn.  And she'll do it disguised as frumpy mid-western housewives who sell Mary Kay cosmetics.

So, there she goes, meek and mild Susan Cooper, wearing frumpy wigs, trying to blend in.  But it's not going to work for too long.  The bad guys have a nuclear bomb they're trying to sell, and time is running out.

From a millionaire's casino in Rome to a seedy Parisian hotel, to the less-familiar streets of Budapest,  the story pauses long enough for a few set pieces that other filmmakers should study to learn how to fuse humor and action.  As Susan gets chased from one impossibly beautiful location to another, even as the stakes get higher and higher, Spy never lets us forget that this is a bawdy comedy.  It finds the big cinematic moments, but roots them in the character of Susan Cooper, a dowdy old frump who never imagined she would be getting to do the kinds of things she's doing.

In Spy, that means trying to find a nuclear bomb that's been hidden away by Rose Byrne's supercilious and ridiculously coiffed bad guy who wants to sell the bomb to the highest bidder.  After a massive cock-up by another agent (hilariously played in dim-witted fashion by Jason Statham), Susan's sent into the field for the first time to monitor and track the villains.

It doesn't take her too long before she's engaging in gun fights, breaking arms and legs, and -- here's the real beauty of it all -- discovering that this is the life she wants.  She doesn't want to watch the action happening from the safety of Langley, she wants to be part of it.

As she does, she finds her own voice, her own strength, and to that end there's a great message for young women (heck, for both genders of all ages) about fighting for what you're owed, about standing up for yourself, and about confidence.

The good news is: While all of that's there, it's buried very, very deeply under a pile of laughs. McCarthy is poised, confident, totally in command of her humor and skills, even when she's vomiting right onto a man she has just killed.

Spy has been designed to make you laugh.  A lot.  And it will.

Surrounded by an astonishingly game supporting cast, including Byrne as an impossibly wealthy arms trader, Miranda Hart as Susan's best office mate, Allison Janney as the unhumorous CIA boss, and Jude Law as a sneaky agent, everyone is in on the joke.  They know how to make Spy work -- to make both an uproarious comedy (you may feel a tear or two on your cheek from laughing so hard at key moments) and an intriguing spy caper.  It's a spy movie, first and foremost, make no mistake -- the plot is wrapped up tightly -- and it needed to be in order to avoid simply being a slapstick.

It carefully manages not to cross that line between story and silly, it just toes it well and cautiously for its entire running length.  If a few minutes toward the end of Spy seem to lag a bit, fear not: There's always a well-conceived, elaborate joke waiting to be conveyed -- and it's got a real and interesting story, to boot.

A lot of movies have tried to get this balance correct.  I can't remember many that have succeeded this well.  Spy gets it right -- and keeps getting it right, pretty much to the very end.

Spy is fantastically funny, anchored by an unexpectedly rich comic performance by McCarthy and augmented by equally fine (and unexpected) turns by Jason Statham, Peter Serafinowicz, and particularly Byrne, who proves that you can be simultaneously beautiful and trashy, evil and manipulative and enormously funny.

From the writers, producers and actors to the director and even the visual-effects creators, everyone was devoted to making a comedy first and foremost, and in that they've succeeded wildly.  It's grafted on to a second-rate spy movie, but we're not really hear to watch spies being spies.  We're here to watch Melissa McCarthy being a spy, which proves to be gloriously giddy, ridiculously outrageous, and one of the most perfect marriages of actor and role I've seen in a while.

McCarthy makes the most of it.  But it's not just her movie, and it's not just about crazy, mildly inappropriate female spies.  It's just a comedy laced with action that makes you laugh a lot, feel tense just a little, want walk away feeling like you just got your money's worth.  Spy certainly gives you that, and makes it all giddily, stupidly memorable.  Spy is everything summer movies aren't supposed to be: it's not based on an existing "franchise," it doesn't pander to the kids, and it's got a strong central female character.  It's not supposed to be what makes summer movies work, but this time around, it is.  So far this summer, Spy is the most fulfilling, most gregarious big-studio movie I've seen.  More like this one, please, if you're reading, Hollywood Executive Types.

Viewed ArcLight Sherman Oaks -- June 6, 2015


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