When she hews too closely to self-deprecation over self-actualization (see Identity Thief, Tammy – the latter of which is better than we all remember it to be), she runs the risk of self-satire, becoming co-opted by the Hollywood marketing machine and reinforcing the gender- and body-shaming that Tinseltown has foisted on generations.
I am happy to report that Spy, her latest collaboration with director (and, I suspect, fellow free-spirit) Paul Feig, is firmly a home run in the former category, not the latter.
Never devolving into Austin Powers-hackery, Spy gently lampoons the James Bond genre and its misogynistic tropes with a depth and breadth that keeps the enterprise from being an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch. Working from Feig’s script, Feig and McCarthy have created the strongest showcase yet for McCarthy’s seemingly effortless, wildly diverse, rich character work.
McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is a sharp, eagle-eyed, kind-hearted desk operative in the CIA whose unrequited affection for Jude Law’s field agent Bradley Fine has derailed the unrelenting moxie she once showed in her basic training days. When Fine is seemingly murdered on a mission – a mission guided from afar by Cooper – she sees no choice but to take his place and track down his assassin Rayna Boyanov (an epically bewigged, riotously toxic Rose Byrne, channeling Sarah Brightman’s wide-eyed, new age Baroque bullsh*t, that is if she’d been raised by Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld).
With the exception of this Legally Blonde-esque narrative impetus (woman in love leaves her comfort zone to ultimately triumph over self-imposed, patriarchal limitations), Spy is a tart feminist meringue. McCarthy (not to mention her crackerjack sidekick Nancy, smartly underplayed by Miranda Hart) makes the absolute most of every moment, mixing supreme self-confidence with bat-sh*t anxiety to offer us an accomplished master-spy finding her voice and her power, nevertheless wondering how the hell she ever got into this mess in the first place. It is the most charming, heartfelt, and hysterical performance she’s yet given.
In addition to Law, Hart, and Byrne (all of whom are spot-on delightful), the ensemble cast also includes a frisky Jason Statham (like McCarthy, playing both to and against type) as a bumbling alpha male agent who is utterly convinced McCarthy’s Cooper has no business being on this (or any mission) and who, in his every effort to help, makes things ten times worse. (Typical male.) Allison Janney (always so darn present) is the CIA chief who wrings every bit of funny right out of her character’s exhaustion heading a male-dominated ship of fools. Hammy Bobby Cannavale has a small but pivotal role as a nuclear arms buyers, and Morena Baccarin is a hoot in a cameo role as a glamazon agent whose mean girl tendencies are masked by a hair flip and a smile.
What the partnership of Feig and McCarthy (from Bridesmaids to The Heat to Spy) does so well is run headlong into the very ugliness of men’s mistreatment of women, women’s mistreatment of women, and people’s mistreatment of people. The best comedy in these films comes from the quiet slight, the reaction shot, the response said through gritted teeth.
While scoping out the kind of sleek, sleezy high-end Eurotrash casino so prevalent in these kinds of films, Statham sniffs at McCarthy that she couldn’t possibly function as a successful agent because of her look, her gender, her demeanor. She just doesn’t fit in. She responds, with the kind of wounded/wounding line delivery only she has mastered, “What?! Do you want me to say I’m from the Midwest? Where’s the buffet? How do I find the Blue Man Group?”
And this exchange occurs well after her character has demonstrated a competence – no, excellence – that defies anything evidenced by any of her male colleagues. The commentary is hilarious and sad, exhilarating and maddening for, in one line, McCarthy’s Susan Cooper highlights how far we’ve yet to come, but in so doing reclaims power for herself by also pointing out just how stupid and blind we all can be. Go, Melissa, go.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.