The most recent stumble was the tepid buddy romp “Hot Pursuit,” which went nowhere despite some promising elements. It had a female director, Anne Fletcher, with a solid track record (“27 Dresses,” “The Proposal”). It featured two popular funny ladies as a mismatched pair, Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara. And it employed a time-tested premise of using crime as a backdrop for humor. But its makers forgot one thing: A good script that somehow avoided relying on such material as menstruation and faux lesbian make-out sessions to draw laughs.
Film historian Jeanine Basinger notes that after “The Hunger Games” opened the gates for more franchises based on literary series aimed primarily at girls, “Studios are too busy trying to prove women are action stars. They are working so hard on that, they forgot to make these comedies funny. How many really great female comedians have been seen in motion pictures from 1960 onward? You more often see them doing standup or TV.”
Leave it to the Great Male Hope of distaff comedy, “Bridemaids” director Paul Feig, to continue to crack the code on what audiences want from female-headlined chuckle-fests. “Spy,” a female twist on 007 adventures, manages not only to deliver inventive, humorous material but it actually allows the current queen of comedy, Melissa McCarthy, a chance to flex her action muscles while playing CIA drone turned super-agent Susan Cooper. The espionage caper that opens Friday is eliciting some of the most glowing raves of this movie star’s career.
Even New York Times critic A.O. Scott, not a huge fan of McCarthy and Feig’s previous collaboration, “The Heat,” was lavish in his praise. He was especially keen on “the blithe feminism that makes ‘Spy’ feel at once revolutionary and like no big deal. It’s not just that the movie aces the Bechdel test [which requires that female characters talk about something other than men]. It didn’t even need to study. The movie isn’t uplifting; it’s buoyant.”
Director, writer and producer Feig is also earning plaudits from the critical masses. Writes Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post: “Feig has become the George Cukor for early 21st century female stars, but instead of urbane dialogue, flattering camera angles and carefully pitched emotion, he gives them swagger, sexual confidence and an armamentarium of shocking profanities.”
Just how does the creator of cult TV fave “Freaks and Geeks,” director on “The Office” and “Nurse Jackie” and force behind the upcoming gender-bending update of “Ghostbusters” pull it off? Whether working with duos, threesomes, quartets or a whole squad like “Bridesmaids,” here are seven secrets behind Feig’s way with ladies of the funny variety.
1. Women are indeed different than men. Feig understands that equality of the sexes is a great idea. But that doesn’t mean their reactions are the same when they relate to humorous situations. That is one factor that other female-led comedies often botch. “There is definitely a difference,” Feig said. “I understand how to write more for women than guys.” He also relies on his female cast to provide a reality check. “It has to be vetted by them. I want to get their voices in there so I deputize everyone. Months before shooting, their voices are in my head.”
With “Spy” as well as 2013’s “The Heat,” Feig milks laughs by upending the conventions of two highly chauvinistic genres – the secret-agent thriller and the odd-couple crime-fighting duo – by having McCarthy and her fellow actresses (including co-star Sandra Bullock in “The Heat”) feminize the conventions of each type of film. “Instead of Bond girls, we have Cooper boys in ‘Spy,’” he said. “Aldo (a libidinous Italian agent meant to protect McCarthy’s character when she is on assignment) is the ultimate Cooper boy.”
2. Seek friendship over courtship. Since “Bridesmaids” revolved around a wedding and Kristen Wiig’s resentment over her best friend tying the knot, it wasn’t inappropriate to have her character to seek out male companionship with Chris O’Dowd’s kindly cop. But “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” and “Spy” are all less interested in the love life of female characters than in the supportive bonds between them.
“Friendship has to be there,” Feig said. “Professional women having a love interest has been covered so many times. The whole job versus happiness situation. It suggests that working women are demoralized. But they can be happy in their job. And the dynamics of female friendship are interesting. The connections between women are both the strongest and most tenuous.”
3. Even a villain deserves respect. In “Spy,” Rose Byrne’s pampered Bulgarian princess Rayna is not just a chilly nemesis standing in McCarthy’s way while mean-girl mocking her fashion sense. Just like Cooper, the arms dealer is trying to compete in a man’s world by completing her late father’s mission to sell off a valuable nuclear device.
“The villain role is thrust upon her,” Feig said. “I want her to be relatable, not a type of mustache-twirling type. Bobby Cannavale fulfills that function. Every character has to be relatable. We want to know why they are doing something. She wants to prove herself, too.”
4. Know how to play matchmaker. Perhaps surprisingly, Feig wrote the part of Nancy, Cooper’s CIA sidekick, with British comic Miranda Hart in mind even before McCarthy was officially cast. But he knew they were similar types and would go together well. “I tend to create nerdy friendships. Not ones that are like two bitchy models who are friends. I like two people struggling to find their own way who fall together and become friends. I can also feel what actors are going to get along together. I knew Miranda and Melissa would hit it off the same way I knew Sandra Bullock and Melissa would get along in ‘The Heat.’”
Feig used that same approach when casting Wiig, McCarthy and “Saturday Night Live” regulars Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones as his “Ghostbusters” foursome. ”I spent months mixing and matching people in my head that would be fun together. I settled on these four and I am at peace with it. Whenever I am prepping a movie, I want to think that I want to work with these people. It pulls me through all the angry Tweets.”
5. Avoid cat fights at all costs. Relationships of a combative and competitive nature between a pair of women might fuel those Real Housewives of Whatever City shows. But while movie audiences have long accepted male comedy duos like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis being aggressive and engaging in one-upmanship with one another, seeing two females go at it in such of way is more often a turnoff as well as a cliche.
“Too many romantic comedies devolve into a catfight in a fountain,” Feig said. “I don’t like anything that makes anyone lose their dignity. We pushed it as far as it could go in the bathroom scene in ‘Bridesmaids’ when Ellie Kemper threw up on Wendi McLendon-Covey’s head. But we never want the audience to go home thinking, ‘Oh, those poor actresses.’ If we find women are laughing and loving it, we will keep it in. If guys are laughing, and the women are not, we will take it out.”
6. Keep it real. Feig did not see “Hot Pursuit,” but he suggests many comedies fall apart when there is a lack of consistency. “The biggest thing is to guard the tone and reality of the characters. You set up this jewel box and say, ‘This is the world where everything is taking place.’ It might be the craziest thing in the world. The opening of ‘Moulin Rouge!’ is bananas. But once you set it up, you don’t jettison that world for a joke.”
7. The divide between male and female ensembles. Feig much prefers to hang out with a large group of women than men. “Those are my favorite nights out. We joke around. Usually, there is a fun, supportive quality to it. Even when dirt gets dished, it never feels ugly.”
As for what happens when men flock together? Feig said that when he goes to Las Vegas with friends, the group tends to split two ways. “Basically, there are guys who are willing to fuck in front of each other and those who won’t. I tend to be with the nerds. We make jokes and try to make each other laugh. Then there are these more intense looking guys. They go to strip clubs and get lap dances next to each other. Meanwhile, if a stripper is hired to come to a party, we are the ones who will migrate to the other room to play cards.” Which is probably why Feig will never be hired to make a “Hangover” sequel.
The “Bridesmaids” effect might fully kick in yet. There are two bright spots already on the horizon. “Trainwreck,” starring comedy sensation Amy Schumer – who also wrote the script – and directed by Feig cohort Judd Apatow, opens on July 17. And Tina Fey and Amy Poehler continue their “SNL”-enabled big-screen partnership from 2008’s “Baby Mama” as estranged siblings who throw one last party in their childhood home in “Sisters” this December.