As far as summer comedies go, Paul Feig‘s “Spy” is a pretty good one. It’s better structured and more consistent than Feig’s last action/comedy hybrid “The Heat,” but is less inspired and more indebted to its plot than his breakout “Bridesmaids.” But it’s a ton of fun, marking the third time the “Freaks & Geeks” co-creator has taken an unpromising premise and turned it into one of the better comedies of the season.
There are plenty of pleasures to be found in the film, including an involving story and some better-than-expected action sequences. Bobby Cannavale sleazes it up in a small role, British actor Peter Serafinowicz exults in a completely absurd accent, Jason Statham plays a macho bozo to total perfection and Rose Byrne once again shows off her comedic chops. But for all the film’s flaws, there’s one thing in particular that makes it something close to a must-see, a quality that it shares with the two other films mentioned above —a phenomenal lead performance from Melissa McCarthy.
A Groundlings alumnus, McCarthy first came to notice in a supporting role on beloved dramedy “Gilmore Girls,” but broke out as a star thanks to Feig’s “Bridesmaids,” in which she walked away as the highlight of the film in a big, broad, brash, unfiltered turn that took full advantage of her near-supernatural improvisational gifts. But there’s subtlety in the performance too. McCarthy creates a three dimensional individual out of slapstick moments, building up a deep, intrinsic I-don’t-care-what-you-think confidence out of years of mockery and discomfort. The result was that she earned much deserved Oscar, BAFTA and SAG nominations for a film in which she shits in a sink. And from there, McCarthy lined up a string of successes: “Identity Thief” was a smash, her reteam with Feig on “The Heat” was even bigger, “Tammy” did solid business, while “St. Vincent,” a foray into more dramatic territory, was the second-biggest indie film of last year. Most of the films above saw her playing some variation on her “Bridesmaids” persona —the biggest and loudest person in the room.
Which is one of the things that makes “Spy” so interesting —it elicits a very different kind of turn from the actress, demonstrating a hugely impressive range, and it’s probably her best performance yet. McCarthy’s character Susan Cooper is not what we’ve come to expect of the star when we first meet her. She certainly seems to know her shit, giving faultless advice and analysis to superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). But while theoretically capable, she’s also a far cry from her “The Heat” character: easily flustered, in unrequited love with Fine and entirely lacking in self-confidence (she tells co-worker Nancy, played nicely by British comic Miranda Hart, that her mother used to write in her lunchbox “Give up on your dreams, Susan”).
If McCarthy’s brash persona runs the risk of getting tired, starting off the film in wallflower mode makes her instantly more appealing, and you really feel the bravery when she volunteers for front-line duty after her fellow agents are exposed by Byrne’s villain Rayna Boyanov, especially given the way that her colleagues, even boss Elaine (Allison Janney), overlook, underestimate or ignore her. As you might imagine, her character gets a journey towards greater self-esteem and respect from her co-workers, but it’s both to the film’s credit and to McCarthy’s performance that it’s not a simple A to B route.
McCarthy gets to play close to half a dozen variations on Susan across the film —from the woman nervously trying to live up to her idea of a secret agent, to the comfortable-in-her-skin kickass, sexy spy of the conclusion— but there’s always a throughline that makes it feel like a single person. The closest the film comes to drawing on her established persona is midway through, when she blows her cover to Rayna and immediately takes on the identity of an aggressively insulting bodyguard hired by the villain’s father. But even then, it’s something new: it’s a desperate defense mechanism and an outlet for her anger at the bad guy while allowing her to keep the mission going. Yet it’s not the real Susan.
Transparency is a quality that perhaps only the best actors can convey, and McCarthy doesn’t just switch between these different identities, but builds them on top of each other and somehow allows the audience to see Susan’s thought process without letting the mask slip in front of the other characters. The closest recent comparison point would be Robert Downey Jr. in “Tropic Thunder” (who wound up earning an Oscar nomination for his performance). At one point, he plays an Australian actor, playing an African-American soldier, playing a Vietnamese farmer, and you can see all of the different personas at once. And McCarthy’s similar complex comedic turn might be the best performance in a studio laffer since that film.
The “Bridesmaids” and “Tropic Thunder” nominations aside, comedies often have difficulty breaking into the awards circuit, despite the fact that most in a position to know believe that the genre’s harder to pull off. But I’d love to see McCarthy in the conversation by the time the end of the year rolls around. The deftness of the way she shifts identities, the fearlessness of the turn, her usual uproarious physicality (the film allows itself a little slapstick, but it lets Susan be a capable action hero rather than a bumbling amateur) and the unexpected pathos means that, halfway through the year, she’d be topping my personal Oscar ballot. The effortlessness with which she accomplishes this feat belies the difficulty of the role, and it’s impossible to imagine the film working without her. After seeing the movie, I suspect you’ll agree.