The Melissa McCarthy of Spy is different from the one who rose to prominence by shitting in a sink. Bridesmaids scored her an Oscar nomination, and for the ceremony McCarthy donned a glamorous rose gown with a diamond collar and belt. But in the years since, Hollywood continued to see her as a grotesque. Onscreen, McCarthy has played a parade of morons, lunatics, losers, and bullies. More punching bag than human being, she’s been hit by car after car and forced to suck Zach Galifianakis’s used lollipop.
But Paul Feig, the director who made McCarthy a star, has finally written his own script for his muse — Feig’s first screenplay in twelve years. In Spy, McCarthy is soft, feminine, and smart. For a dinner with her CIA co-worker and crush Bradley Fine (Jude Law), her character, Susan Cooper, curls her hair, perfects her makeup, and wears a tasteful amber dress. The cruel joke is it doesn’t matter. Bradley gifts her a plastic cupcake necklace and cackles, “It’s so you!” It isn’t. Like movie producers, he sees only her weight, not the dignified woman inside. And the punchline is that Susan allows the insult, passively slipping on the monstrosity, and later, after Bradley is executed by Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), clutching it at his funeral.
Though the setting is the CIA, there is a Susan in every office: invisible, patronized, and demeaned. A Susan is the woman who remembers cake for everyone’s birthday, but no one remembers hers. She’s competent, but never gets her due credit — a team player stuck warming the bench. Feig has made this film for them.
This Susan begs to take Bradley’s place in Paris to monitor Rayna’s nuclear sales, and it’s no spoiler to say she winds up on top. Yet Spy isn’t a revenge fantasy — a Susan isn’t petty. It’s a comedy of exasperation where, for once, the joke isn’t on McCarthy, but on everyone who can’t see her skills. And it’s more than that, too: When Susan is too self-effacing to accept that Bradley shafted her career by sticking his partner in the CIA basement while he took all the field assignments, her boss Elaine (Allison Janney) rolls her eyes and groans, “Women.”
“Women” is right. 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, anti-fungal spray, and a Beaches watch. 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?”
The biggest brute is boneheaded fellow spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who dismisses Susan as a “lunch lady,” and is so convinced she can’t handle the job that he stalks her through Europe. His disbelief drags her down — in one scene, literally, as she leaps on the landing skids of a helicopter and he leaps after, seizing her legs so she can’t move. When not sabotaging her mission, he brags about his impossible accomplishments: the time he defibrillated himself, the time he survived a modern-day gladiator ring, the time he disguised himself as Barack Obama. Two of those are the plots of actual Statham films — the coincidence is deliberate. The Statham of Spy is the Statham I’ve been wanting since Crank: High Voltage proved he had the comic timing of a badass Buster Keaton. Finally unleashed after six years of grim action flicks, he’s gloriously unhinged.
Statham might have the best jokes in the movie, but the competition is fierce. Every role is perfectly constructed, from Peter Serafinowicz’s handsy Italian agent to lanky Miranda Hart as Susan’s officemate and bumbling best friend. Even Rayna’s goons get in a few good cracks before they’re dispatched, while Rayna herself is a magnificent concoction: Marie Antoinette by way of Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface. Byrne slinks through the film in a towering wig, changing snakeskin outfits between scenes and ordering people’s executions with a cocked eyebrow. She’s terrifying perfection, and you can’t wait for Susan to put her in her place — which, to the film’s credit, feels like it might be impossible.
Feig loves Susan, and he wants us to love her, too. Yet Spy is too sincere about how the rest of the world treats her — and women like her — to smack on a stupidly happy ending. Susan might save the day, but her battle for respect will never be over. Admitting that universal struggle is better than pretending all a woman needs to redeem herself is a gun. And anyways, who needs compliments from bozos like the man who beams, “Maybe one day, super-spy Susan Cooper, I will fuck you.” McCarthy’s tired sigh says it all.
Written and directed by Paul Feig. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, and Allison Janney.