One of the best moments in “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” an uneven but often funny action-comedy, gets at the essence of its feminist satire: Kate McKinnon is tied up, bloodied, and completely at the mercy of her cold-blooded captor. But instead of crying for help, she retorts, “Please go fuck yourself,” setting all the signifiers of a damsel in distress ablaze. After stealing the show time and again in supporting roles during her off-seasons from “Saturday Night Live,” McKinnon finally scores a lead in “Spy” that foregrounds her brilliant capacity to tear apart familiar faces and tropes with constant glee, and she outpaces this discardable entertainment every step of the way.
McKinnon’s near-subversive feistiness usually outpaces whatever comedic vehicle she lands in — “Ghostbusters” would have been saved if she’d taken center stage — almost to the point where filmmakers seem coy about giving her too much space. In “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” she’s not only the star, but at least this time she has a decent partner in crime. Mia Kunis takes on the straight role as the pair play carefree pals inadvertently drawn into an espionage crisis, a violent odyssey of double-crossings, shootouts, and a lot of bonding time in between the mayhem. Director Susanna Fogel (“Life Partners”) doesn’t break the rule book for the fish-out-water espionage romp that’s been in place at least since 1979’s “The In-Laws,” but the movie maintains an endearing shaggy-dog quality as long as the women take charge.
Fortunately, the title’s a misnomer: The spy in question, nimble undercover agent Drew (Justin Theroux, playing the poor man’s Jason Bourne), doesn’t exactly dump Audrey (Kunis) after dating her for a year. He just sort of vanishes, right in time for her birthday. A snazzy fast-paced showdown reveals Drew engaged in a series of “John Wick”-style battles with various anonymous baddies in Lithuania, while Audrey grows disillusioned at her bash in Los Angeles. At the urging of her ebullient best friend Morgan (McKinnon), Audrey sets her partner’s possessions ablaze, only to learn from cohorts one day later that he’s a missing CIA agent. In a series of clunky confrontations, Drew attempts to explain himself to Audrey before dropping out of the picture again, leaving a trophy with her that supposedly contains some valuable security intel that she now must deliver to a covert source in Vienna.
It’s a silly MacGuffin that becomes a weak premise to launch its leads on a globe-trotting adventure. Soon, they’re dashing through European streets, screeching at the sort of unexpected developments we’ve seen in countless escapist movies of this type — from gun-wielding cyclists to speeding cars — all through the amusing framework of their ongoing astonishment. Some gags land better than others (a passing reference to diarrhea feels like the start of a more outrageous direction the movie declines to take), and it switches modes so frequently it falls short of finding its own groove, but the women keep the energy flowing from one sketch to the next. The best bits draw on the juxtaposition of sudden, grisly events and the baffled reactions of normal Angelenos over their heads. Think “Pineapple Express,” with less pot and better scenery.
Eventually, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” fleshes out its scenario with the arrival of Drew’s coworkers, bumbling male agents Sebastian (Sam Heughan) and Patel (Hasan Minhaj), who follow the women at every turn and may or may not have hidden agendas of their own. Alliances shift, the body count rises, and the women can’t decide if they’re in too deep or excited about the clichéd movie surrounding them at every turn.
Those clichés are a mixed blessing: They animate two inspired performances, but just as often get in their way. One car chase with an eager Uber driver has a hilarious twist, but runs too long; similarly, the women face down an evil gymnast-turned-assassin (Ivanna Sakhno) who makes for a terrific icy villain, but the gimmick of her stone-faced threat gets old fast. “The Spy Who Dumped Me” offers up several grisly deaths as clever punchlines simply because one wouldn’t expect the movie to go there, but they don’t enhance the humor so much as underscore the gravity of the situation — and, by extension, point out the discordance of the dueling tones.
All of that runs secondary to McKinnon and her astonishing ability to contort her features and bounce off the walls with goofy inspiration, dwarfing the movie around her; it often seems as though she’s just a few steps away from breaking the fourth wall. But this cartoonish material never quite goes that far, so we’re stuck with McKinnon making the best of it. The script, credited to Fogel and David Iserson, gives her the best material by returning time and again to the process of assailing this typically masculine genre. Encountering a senior-level spy played with humorless understatement by Gillian Anderson, McKinnon opines, “I have so much respect for you that it’s circled around to objectification.” (Put that on a t-shirt.)
Because Kunis is the “normal” one in this scenario (and, by virtue of her character’s relationship history, the de facto lead), “The Spy Who Dumped Me” often risks relegating McKinnon to a supporting role. But much of the movie makes it clear that her character’ is the substantial creation, a garrulous loose cannon who’s either “too much” or just enough, depending on who you ask and whether they’re sexist in their assertion. This may be the first entry in McKinnon’s oeuvre to actually interrogate her exuberant persona. (Her parents are played in bit parts by Paul Reiser and Jane Curtin, which feels exactly right.)
One of those late-summer releases that’s just good enough to make you wish it were better, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” aims to please every step of the way, but it never earns the nearly two-hour running time; the pileup of slapdash vignettes grows tiresome long before a prolonged finale involving trapeze artists, fake wigs, and yet more double-crossings. (This is exactly the sort of market-ready product that 90-minute blocks were designed for.) All the twists and turns would be irrelevant if the movie weren’t stuck to the possibility that it could squeeze in the makings of a legitimate spy movie in tandem with its comedic overtones. Still, once the excess material falls away, “The Spy Who Dumps Me” concludes with its most satisfying image — the two women walking in slo-mo, guns pointed ahead, cool as hell and ready to tackle another adventure. No matter its shortcomings, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” leaves you hoping that they’ll keep at it.
“The Spy Who Dumped Me” opens nationwide on August 3.