Spy (dir. Paul Feig)

Posted: June 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

While I’m sure it was done for comedic effect, it is odd that most of the CIA agents in “Spy” are British. Jude Law, Jason Statham, and Miranda Hart are all English, and yet the film never pauses to explain why so many Brits work for an American intelligence agency. I’m sure this is mainly a play on how all the coolest spies, from James Bond to Austin Powers to even this year’s assorted Kingsmen, always hail from across the pond.  Still, it’d be nice if the film winkingly acknowledged this.

“Spy”, as its too-generic title tells you, is yet another in a long list of spy-related comedies, from “In Like Flint” to “Austin Powers” to “Spy Hard” to TV’s “Archer”.  While all of those films and TV shows fit more or less into the areas of parody, “Spy” is a comedy that isn’t a parody, and is largely playing the spy angle straight while deriving comedy from its characters. It works well enough tonally to differentiate the film from a well-played-out genre, but what we have here is a film of funny characters acting in a plot we care nothing about.

That plot involves Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a CIA analyst who utilizes various technologies while talking in a field agent’s ear to help that agent complete covert missions.  She exclusively works with agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), whom she is crushing on pretty hard. When Fine is murdered by a woman (Rose Byrne) who has possession of, and is trying to sell, a portable nuclear device, Susan, who was trained as a field agent earlier in her career, begs to be let into the field to track down the nuke and , maybe, get revenge for the murder of her crush.

The plot doesn’t really matter.  This is a light comedy, and thus the threat of thermo-nuclear annihilation is never on the radar.  Mostly, the film exists to show that Susan, though socially inept and overweight, can still kick ass and make for a more-than-competent agent.  It’s rather refreshing that “Spy” never becomes a fat joke (one imagines the late Chris Farley making that version of this film), but instead showcases a strong, smart, capable female lead who, while originally driven because of both unrequited love and then revenge over a man, becomes her own self-driven woman who, ultimately, doesn’t need a man to be capable of kicking ass, saving the day, and showing up the people who doubt her.  This is a progressive film that doesn’t reek of shoving politics in the audience’s face. I’d argue this film is actually more feminist than “Mad Max: Fury Road”.

But is the film funny?  After all, that’s all a comedy really needs to be, whatever else it may accomplish.  The answer is yes, but it’s mostly small chuckles.  There’s no gut-busters or hilarious moments, and some jokes do fall flat (a vermin infestation in the CIA feels like it comes out of a spoof and doesn’t quite fit the rest of the film).  Jason Statham has some nice moments as a man who spins increasingly unbelievable tales of his past espionage exploits while he never ceases to actual show minimal skills in the film. Rose Byrne, who I’ve loved since her great role in the underrated “Wicker Park” is wasted in the film, sadly, but otherwise the cast is utilized quite well. A special notice should go to Peter Serafinowicz who plays Aldo, a delightfully perverted Italian agent who unceasingly and ineffectively hits on McCarthy’s character.  Perhaps I just have a fondness for creepy Italian characters (remember Fred Armisen in “Eurotrip”), but a scene where Aldo has to help untie Cooper had me laughing the hardest of any scene in the film.

The film was directed by Paul Feig, creator of the great, short-lived “Freaks & Geeks”, who wrote a memoir of his failed sex life in the book “Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin” and has recently has hit films with “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat”. I enjoyed the former, and vaguely remember enjoying the latter, but since I watched the latter on a late night flight from Iceland to the United States, my memory of the particulars of that film are hazy. Regardless, Feig is a very funny man who knows how to direct a comedy and how to write female characters, though I wish his more recent films rose above chuckle-worthy into full hilarity. I have high hopes for his all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot.

Comedies that send-up the spy genre are pretty old by now, and there’s not much more than can be parodied about it. “Spy” therefore, lives or dies by its characters, and they are funny enough and likeable enough to watch.  The film is a middle-of-the-road comedy.  It will make you laugh while it goes on, but you won’t be thinking back to film fondly years from now, or quoting the film endlessly in remembrance. It’s fun to watch, but forgettable, save for perhaps its rather forward-thinking treatment of gender. B.

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