This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.
As I noted in my review of this year’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” 2015 is going to be lousy with spy movies—and not just overtly serious spy stuff, but spoofs of the spy genre, too. This year, secret agents are the new superheroes. And the latest spy send-up is “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig‘s “Spy,” a film which once again reunites him with Melissa McCarthy, this time playing a desk-bound office drone that is forced into active duty. The last time Feig played with genre, the result was “The Heat,” an iffy buddy cop movie that I failed to connect with. This time around, though, Feig has found a winning formula between the silly and the serious, smartly housing an occasionally outrageous comedy in the strict trappings of a traditional espionage tale. This approach of delivering a silly comedy with a straight face benefits “Spy” hugely, and makes it an uneven but undeniably entertaining romp.
From the word go, “Spy” makes its intentions known: Theodore Shapiro‘s score is big and lush and never jokey, and Jude Law, playing a cocky but inherently good secret agent, is suave and charismatic. He’s on the hunt for a man who knows the whereabouts of a deadly nuclear bomb, but once he’s interrogating his suspect, he sneezes and… accidentally shoots the villain in the face. All the while, Law is talking to an agent back at the CIA headquarters, a plucky analyst named Susan Cooper (McCarthy), who does just about everything for him aside from shoot again—she talks him through complex operations, sends a drone to disable some bad guys, and is even tasked with tough domestic duties, like firing his gardener. After this little prologue, cutting back and forth between Law’s heroics and McCarthy dealing with a bat infestation at the office, there’s even a James Bond-style title sequence. And, again, everything is played completely straight, which of course makes everything much funnier.
After Law is incapacitated, McCarthy’s by-the-book agent volunteers to go into the field to find the nuclear device and prevent the deaths of countless innocent victims. This begins a whirlwind international adventure that has Cooper tracking down the daughter of a Russian baddie (played by another Feig favorite, Rose Byrne), aligning with a lecherous Italian agent (Peter Serafinowicz) and unwittingly forcing another office-mate (Miranda Hart) into active duty. “Spy” follows the zigzagging patterns of an actual spy movie, with motives revealed and moles uncovered, and for the most part it really connects. This is a very, very funny movie and the notoriously vocal SXSW crowd ate it up.
In a more hermetically sealed environment, “Spy” should play, although probably not as uproariously. McCarthy, for her part, is excellent. She’s the perfect mixture of internal insecurity and outward bravado, particularly when, about halfway through the movie, she fools Byrne into thinking that she’s part of her security detail. Their chemistry is surprisingly flinty and really welcome (in “Bridesmaids” they didn’t get to exchange that much dialogue). Contrary to what the marketing materials would have you believe, “Spy” isn’t just an endless procession of jokes where McCarthy simply falls down and, maybe most surprising of all, there isn’t a single reference to her weight. There are plenty of references to her frumpy appearance and apparent lack of physical abilities, but Feig’s sensitive touch is appreciated and goes a long, long way.
Feig also wrangles the most out of the supporting actors, particularly Jason Statham, who plays an agent who quits once he learns that they’re sending McCarthy into the field. Outside of some of his early Guy Ritchie stuff, Statham is rarely called upon to tap into his comedic potential. It’s there, of course (this is an actor who made two “Crank” movies, after all), but is rarely seized upon by the filmmakers he usually works with, who instead insist that he scowl and growl and generally look like a large chunk of glass is slowly making its way through his digestive track. But here, he’s required to showcase his comedic chops and it’s an absolute delight; I’m pretty sure I only heard half of what he was saying because the other half was drowned out by laughter. Feig only uses him selectively, which could be seen as a downside, but it leaves you wanting more. If the reaction from the SXSW crowd was any indication, I could see “Spy” becoming a little franchise, and future installments could definitely stand to feature more of his deadpan delivery and fine physical comedy.
But as much fun as “Spy” generally is, there are also some problems that definitely hold it back. For one, at 120 minutes, it sometimes feels agonizingly long. This was likely a deliberate move by Feig to give the picture the sensation of watching a real, serious spy movie. For a comedy, it borders on exhausting, especially when so many scenes are built around a single joke, batted back and forth between actors. Also, for all the dynamic action sequences in the film, the rest of the movie is shot pretty flatly (by regular Wes Anderson collaborator, Robert Yeoman), which is somewhat at odds with more recent spy outings, wherein someone calling in a lunch order is photographed with jittery intensity. And especially towards the third act, the movie’s narrative becomes far too convoluted, which is pretty deathly. One of the most impressive things Feig does in “Spy” is make you really care about the Susan Cooper character and root for her to succeed; when the movie becomes impenetrably (and unnecessarily) knotty, that emotional connection is nearly broken. Thankfully, though, the conviction of the actors (we didn’t even mention Bobby Cannavale as an arms dealer, and Allison Janney as McCarthy’s CIA boss), Feig’s commitment to the genre, and some truly wonderful set pieces, make “Spy” as lovable as its main character. [B]