Spoof cinema seems a tricky thing nowadays considering the need to strike a balance between narrative-focused imitation and sketch-like gags, but Paul Feig sidesteps such challenges with a tremendous cast and clever script in his wildly wacky comedy Spy. Parodying subgenres tucked under the banner of action movies means committing to an action movie with comedy in today’s Hollywood, so Spy has to find space for relatively elaborate car chases, stabbings, shootings, and helicopter escapes amidst all the R-rated verbal sparring.
It’s territory that Feig is somewhat adept at, though Spy is certainly at its least interesting when pretending to be an actual spy flick. Thankfully, the cast is so rich that there’s hilarity hiding around nearly every corner, allowing the story to clip along at a considerably breezy pace. The script by Feig proves smart in its spoofing as well, since it aims to anchor the humour in the oddball group of characters and let the parodying of the spy genre extend from there, instead of simply mocking specific famous scenes from Bond pics or the like.
Spy succeeds because it understands the genre it’s skewering, but insists on exploring the tropes and clichés with an original cast of characters that stand on their own. The Bondian hero here is the suave Bradley Fine (Jude Law), who manages to be so good at sneaking around fancy villain-harbouring estates because he wears an earpiece that connects him to desk spy partner Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy). Susan is Agent Fine’s eyes in the sky, watching everything on a monitor back in CIA headquarters and informing Fine whenever and wherever danger lurks.
Life in the office isn’t all too glamourous, illustrated mainly by a bat infestation in the ceiling, so when Fine is captured by villainess Raina (Rose Byrne) and all the active field agents are compromised, Susan volunteers to go undercover to stop Raina from deploying a nuke. This is all an excuse to get McCarthy into position for maximum gags, but for all of the silliness cooked into the concept, Feig remains straight-faced about his commitment to plot.
No one is in much of a rush in the first act and while that means viewers need to wait until the really ridiculous stuff arrives, it also means that Susan is a character far more deeply developed than most spoof products would allow. This also affords Feig the room to build a solid bedrock for Susan’s arc, so that her transformation doesn’t feel hurried in the name of comedy. It’s an important aspect of Spy’s success because the movie’s strengths lie almost entirely in how it attends to the characters.
Even when Susan gets her golden opportunity to be a field agent, she can’t help but be a victim of the agency’s prejudice. She’s given humiliating disguises and every one of her fancy gadgets doled out by the movie’s Q-like character is hidden behind a façade of hemorrhoid creams and laxatives. Not all of the jokes associated with these embarrassments land, but the way Feig plays with the jokes is smartly self-aware.
Susan is being mocked, but in a way that gets us on her side so we’re rooting for her instead of jeering her. Eventually, Susan has to take matters into her own hands and even splurges on new wardrobe items so she doesn’t have to plod around with such a frumpy appearance. This offers a nice twist on most of McCarthy’s big screen roles, where her size has routinely been the epicentre of the comedy and where she’s often playing slobbish characters.
In Spy, McCarthy is treated as a beautiful woman and a running gag has a fellow agent constantly, aggressively (but comically, of course) making sexual advances towards her. Susan is actually a very nice, mild-mannered person, so the profanity-laced insanity that McCarthy has made a trademark of her big screen roles is achieved through the undercover identity that she must adopt throughout the adventure. It’s an effective way to keep the shtick feeling fresh and it lets McCarthy show off her acting chops more than usual since she has to juggle multiple personalities.
Surrounding McCarthy and feeding off her inspired turn is a sparkling supporting cast that provides a lot of personality. Byrne is delightful as the elegant antagonist who couldn’t care less about who she offends. Byrne’s reinvention as a comic actress still surprises in some ways, but she clearly has the verbal and physical timing to milk a scene for its comedic worth. Feig’s faith in her really pays off here. More surprising still is the incredibly funny turn by Jason Statham, playing a fellow spy whose epic boasting doesn’t mesh with his near incompetence during the mission.
Statham’s Rick Ford is constantly angry, a blunt brute who inserts himself into the story whenever he pleases, and the actor generally not associated with comedy even manages to steal at least a few scenes. Throw in Miranda Hart as Susan’s workplace buddy Nancy, Peter Serafinowicz as a randy partner in the field, and a deadly serious Allison Janney as the CIA head and you have a cast overflowing with chemistry and charisma.
The plot itself eventually becomes focused on getting as many of the characters together at once as it can, but an underwhelming villain plan and a twist-for-twist’s-sake aren’t going to ruin the fun. The cast is strong enough and the script smart enough that the movie smoothly rides over the potholes caused by things like an overall visual blandness. Spoof comedies rarely offer much in terms of photographic creativity and Feig’s talent clearly lies in how he assembles and handles a gifted ensemble, so Spy tickles the funny bone where it counts.
If there’s any singular point where Spy seems to rise above previous Feig movies, it’s in the evolution of McCarthy as a star actress. She’s had vehicles dedicated to her before, but she’s never had quite as much depth and dimension on the big screen as she does here. She’s reinvigorated her shtick this time around, something that seemed impossible in the wake of crap like Identity Thief. Spy is never all that convincing as an actual spy flick, but as a Melissa McCarthy movie, it’s something special.