Importance, particularly of the self- kind, is death to comedies, so rather than calling “Spy” yet another step in Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s feminist takeover of the American box-office, let’s start by calling it hellaciously funny. Does it help that Feig, who directed “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat” and is moving on to the female “Ghostbusters” spinoff, has chosen the rarely addressed subject of women being underestimated in the workplace as the center of his spy spoof — a genre otherwise so played out that Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” could find no fresher approach that to turn everything up to 11? You bet it does. But it wouldn’t matter much if Feig hadn’t assembled a crack squad of comic performers, including Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Miranda Hart, Allison Janney and Peter Serafinowicz to carry out the deed.
“Spy” takes a long while, as much as half of its two hours, to get going, and it only truly kicks into gear once the plot brings McCarthy’s CIA analyst into the field, where she’s in constant contact with her co-stars. McCarthy is at her best in two-handed scenes; although she made her mark with physical comedy, she’s even better at rallying wisecracks. Even so, Byrne in particular nearly does to “Spy” what McCarthy did to “Bridesmaids,” roll the movie up neatly under her arm and casually walk off with it. Statham’s self-sabotaging machismo, while less of a departure from past roles than some critics seem to realize (have none of them seem “Crank 2: High Voltage”?), is as clever an assault on the spy as placing McCarthy at the center of one, and Serafinowicz gets the kind of breakout role he’s been needing for years.
It’s too easy to cast the release of “Spy” and “Entourage” on the same weekend as a Battle of the Sexes; one of the most delightful aspects of my “Spy” screening was hearing a group of dudes cry-laughing over my shoulder for most of the second hour. Let’s think of it in less gender-restrictive terms: Good vs. Evil. Which side are you on?
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Reviews of “Spy”
Genevieve Koski, The Dissolve
In two previous collaborations with director Paul Feig — “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat” — Melissa McCarthy has played characters who combine competency with craziness, heavily weighted toward the latter. McCarthy’s comic persona over the last half-decade has been defined by outsized confidence: She plays brash women who don’t let other people’s perceptions interfere with their extreme self-assurance, whether it’s warranted or not. In “Spy”, the third and thus-far best McCarthy/Feig collaboration, they bring new, deep shading to this character type, creating the best role of McCarthy’s career, and one of the best comedic roles, female or otherwise, in recent memory.
David Edelstein, New York
The central joke of “Spy” is that this heavy female insult comedian is playing the role of a James Bond undercover secret agent. Well, she is and she isn’t. Her mousy CIA analyst Susan Cooper steps into the breach when the covers of other agents are blown and she’s the only one the villains can’t identify on sight. But there’s a female-disempowerment backstory, too. Ten years earlier, Susan had the potential to be a star agent but was seduced by the 007-like smoothie (Jude Law) whom she plainly adored into becoming his personal analyst — the person who, like Chloe on 24, directs him through an earpiece when he’s on assignment. She knew it was unlikely he’d be interested in wooing a woman like her, but a lonely girl can dream, right? And she still has to fight the perception of herself as insignificant. Her superiors give her ostentatiously frumpy disguises and conceal her gizmo-weapons in boxes of hemorrhoid pads. She’s ordered to observe and not to act. So we wait for McCarthy to drop the mousiness and become the mouthy, foulmouthed motormouth that made her famous.
Simon Brew, Den of Geek!
Interestingly, Cooper is played by McCarthy as a character of competence, just one out of her comfort zone. This is not a film of bumbling buffoons, or random pratfalls. For McCarthy, it’s her best performance in a Feig film to date (and that includes her Oscar-nominated turn in “Bridesmaids”). It’s become easy internet practice to slam the work of McCarthy, but I really liked the progression of her performance here. It’s got touches of her excellent work in St Vincent to it at times, as well as the screen-gobbling persona that won her an Oscar nomination in “Bridesmaids”. It’s a genuinely three dimensional character she’s playing here, one with some really (deliberately) awful outfits.
Michael Sragow, Film Comment
In Feig’s “Bridesmaids,” he and McCarthy turned the sexual aggressiveness of a hefty woman into a running joke that many thought uproarious. I found it cheap and exploitative, even if it was self-exploitative. In “The Heat”, they tried to transform her rotund, foulmouthed cop into a rabid Falstaffian figure, a triumphant id, and failed for lack of generosity or poetry. Worst of all was Ben Falcone’s “Tammy,” in which McCarthy (who co-wrote the script with Falcone, her husband), went straight for bull-in-the-china-shop shenanigans, basing their comedy solely on her size and appetite. Fatty Arbuckle refused to do scenes that highlighted his fat, like getting stuck in a window or a doorway. Not McCarthy as Tammy. In the would-be hilarious robbery scene, the laughs were designed to come from Tammy’s inability to soar over a fast-food counter or to resist packaged pie. She came on like the brash, needy, misanthropic love child of Rosie O’ Donnell and Krusty the Clown. The hijinks and the pathos were both dead weight. In “Spy”,” Susan flops to the road instead of rolling over a car hood, but the sight gag works because the logic is impeccable. Susan is physically powerful: her mistake is trying to follow every move of an acrobatic assassin (Nargis Fakhri). When she fights the same woman in the close quarters of a Budapest restaurant kitchen, Susan turns into Spartacus, using every tool and food at hand to fend off attacks and deliver glancing blows. You half expect McCarthy, like Kirk Douglas, to dunk Fakhri’s head into a boiling stew pot. From there on in, she’s a powerhouse. The running joke in this film is that svelte ladies with thin arms lack the strength to push a gun across the floor.
Tim Grierson, Screen Daily
The other major selling point of “Spy” is that McCarthy has shed the boorish persona that, ironically, helped make her an A-list star. After being nominated for an Oscar in”Bridesmaids”, the actress has essentially duplicated that character’s in-your-face outrageousness in subsequent films, to greatly diminishing comedic returns. In “Spy”, she plays a woman with little self-confidence pining for the dashing Fine. But once she begins trying to track down Rayna on a mission that sends her to glamorous destinations like Paris and Rome, the humour comes from Susan’s fish-out-of-water insecurity — not the abrasiveness that has been the actress’s big-screen M.O. Surrounded by gorgeous, statuesque women and lethal, arrogant spies, Susan stands out like a sore thumb, and McCarthy milks every ounce of the character’s discomfort for laughs, making Susan incredibly sympathetic. (Also, as opposed to McCarthy’s previous characters, Susan is actually quite capable, using her CIA training to good use and discovering how badass she can be.)
Megan Garber, The Atlantic
“Spy” is also redeemed, more importantly, by the fact that Susan herself is never the butt of any of the comedy here — not really. She is insulted, repeatedly, but the jokes here are ultimately directed not at Susan herself (who doesn’t, after all, get all gooey around a crush? what kind of monster doesn’t like cake?), but at a culture that treats someone like her as, in every sense but the most literal one, invisible.”Spy” isn’t simply a send-up of James Bond and Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne and every other spy who has enjoyed the initials of JB; it also satirizes a society that can so stubbornly refuse to see people for who and what they really are. Spies traffic in covert identities; so, writer/director Paul Feig suggests, do people like Susan Cooper — people whose awesome is obscured by other people’s failures of vision.
Amy Nicholson, L.A. Weekly
“Spy” is a call to arms for the cowed and a riotous skewering of the workplace kings, be they affectionate and undermining like Bradley, the unnervingly perfect Karen (Morena Baccarin), the impatient Elaine or the condescending tech designer who, instead of outfitting Susan in slick 007 gear, hides her weapons in drugstore items he assumes she uses: hemorrhoid wipes, stool softener, antifungal spray. Forget a glamorous tuxedo. She’s handed a denim purse and told her cover is a single mom from Delaware. McCarthy’s reaction is perfect. Instead of raging, she lets her hurt feelings slip and warbles, “Have I done something to you?”
Justin Chang, Variety
If “The Heat” placed its righteous gender politics front and center, pairing McCarthy with Sandra Bullock as a happy corrective to the male-dominated buddy-comedy tradition, then “Spy,” a vastly richer and more intricately conceived piece of work, succeeds in scoring a subtler representational coup. To call it feminist would hardly be inaccurate, but it might risk diminishing the singularity of McCarthy’s achievement: It’s not every woman (and certainly not every man) who can juggle the often-conflicting priorities of action and comedy as skillfully as she does here. Put another way, it’s hard to think of another performer, male or female, who could leap onto a motorcycle and immediately topple over sideways, and pull off the gag with such fumbling precision — or is it precise fumbling? — that it can only be described as graceful.
Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman
Most encouraging is the film’s female bias, which clears the air after the last attempt by the same studio (20th Century Fox) to put a comic spin on Bond. That was Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman, which couldn’t even imagine a world where women had agency, let alone one that permitted them to become secret agents.
A.O. Scott, New York Times
Even better is 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. It didn’t even need to study. The movie isn’t uplifting; it’s buoyant. While Susan at first clearly has a lot to prove — that she’s a skilled professional and a ruthless adversary, everyone else’s doubts to the contrary — Mr. Feig doesn’t make her proving it the central arc of the narrative. Instead, he highlights Ms. McCarthy’s quickness and unpredictability, her genius for defying logic and decorum. She can be ridiculous and heroic, needy and scary, clueless and clever — in quick succession and sometimes all at once.
Nicholas Barber, BBC Culture
Considering Susan’s inexperience, as well as McCarthy’s gift for self-humiliating physical comedy, it seems as if she’ll make a mess of her mission, like the heroes of countless Bond spoofs before her. But what’s exhilarating about “Spy” is that it treats Susan with respect and affection. For all of McCarthy’s expertly performed pratfalls and faux pas, the film is careful to balance its jokes about Susan’s lack of confidence with reminders that she is, nonetheless, far more competent than Johnny English and Maxwell Smart ever were. She may vomit colorfully over an enemy agent, but not until she has defeated him in hand-to-hand combat. The CIA may disguise her as a frumpy geek with 10 pet cats, but she comes up with her own glamorous alter ego soon enough.
Jason Bailey, Flavorwire
All of this may make “Spy” sound like more of a polemic than it ultimately is, and the subtext doesn’t overpower the wacky action/comedy text. But it does motivate it. With “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat” behind him and the female “Ghostbusters” on the horizon, Feig is making a legitimate, admirable effort to increase the visibility and complexity of women in mainstream movies. That he does it with such panache, while still crafting a summer entertainment as enjoyable and uproarious as “Spy,” is downright applause-worthy.
What I found myself most appreciating about “Spy” went beyond the bouncy and brassy McCarthy’s regular servings of tasty bits of business — dubbing her fists Cagney and Lacy, telling a stunned Swedish henchman to cut off his own manhood and stick it on his forehead like a unicorn’s horn, or accidentally mistaking a mushroom-like hot towelette for an appetizer. Instead, it was how Feig and company take the piss out of all the macho grandstanding and chauvinistic attitudes ingrained in the spy genre. That would include Nancy’s observation that Ford’s tweed cap makes him look as if he is from the cast of “Newsies.”
Dana Stevens, Slate
Not to give too much away about who does what with whom, but “Spy” treats sexual intrigue among its characters in an unorthodox way that I really appreciated — there’s not just one potential romantic partner for McCarthy’s character but several offered up at different points in the movie. “Spy” lampoons sexism without abandoning sex — a tough tone for a comedy to strike but one that Feig and McCarthy manage to accomplish with both a sense of justice and a sense of humor.