Fans of Melissa McCarthy tend to come in two types: those who know her first from work on TV shows like Gilmore Girls and Samantha Who, and those who know her from her recent string of hit films like Bridesmaids and The Heat. Since earning that (deserved) Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids, she’s built her presence around characters who are brash and self-assured, and while it’s a mode she carries with ease, they’ve lacked the lovable sensitivity that imbued her earlier performances. One thing’s for sure: Spy, McCarthy’s latest collaboration with Bridesmaids and The Heat director Paul Feig, finally brings that sensitivity to the big screen, resulting in the pair’s best outing to date.
McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who works as an assistant to super field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Susan is a humble, but brilliant, analyst whose shy personality and pining for Fine immediately set her apart from recent McCarthy characters. Susan gets a jolt, though, when Agent Fine is killed in the line of duty at the hands of Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), the daughter of a criminal mastermind recently killed by Fine while trying to protect a suitcase nuclear device. Rayna has the nuke now, and she plans on selling it to the top bidder. Rayna also makes it clear she knows the identities of all the CIA’s top field agents, including blowhard Rick Ford (Jason Statham) and the seductive Karen Walker (Morena Baccarin), and she’ll kill anyone who comes after her. Feeling guilty over Fine’s death, and with the clearance of an agent, Susan pushes her boss (Allison Janney) to let her in the field to find and report on Rayna, with technical support from fellow analyst Nancy (Miranda Hart). Even though she’s initially thrilled to get into the field, she soon discovers that those around her don’t view her as the skilled agent she sees in herself.
As it turns out, Susan’s right about herself. Spy reveals Susan to be a physically and mentally adept spy who may lack the polish of James Bond, but more than makes up for it in sheer competence. It’s a bigger deal than you’d imagine, especially after witnessing the ineptitude of Agent Ford or the horny come-ons of Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz). While that doesn’t make her exempt from occasional ridicule, Spy smartly spreads the ridicule out to encompass the entire cast.
While Spy is primarily a showcase for McCarthy’s talents, it also highlights the comedic timing of the rest of its cast, namely Byrne and Statham. Byrne’s initial exposure to American audiences was through her co-starring role on Damages, but since her own role in Bridesmaids, she’s found a surprising amount of credibility in comedic roles. Here, she takes her sophisticated appearance and turns it on its head to create the spoiled Rayna. Statham, meanwhile, takes his go-to badass persona and cranks the ridiculousness to 11 – his ideas and stories become increasingly absurd and delightful.
Feig deserves credit for not only the humor that infuses the script – which may very well be his best to date – but for his direction, which focuses primarily on humor but works surprisingly well in action sequences too. It can’t be said enough, though: comedy reigns supreme here, with more (successful) jokes packed into the film’s two hours than in any other mainstream comedy released so far this year. That it’s reliably funny while also making pointed observations about Susan and the treatment of women makes it even more of a treat. By this point, the pairing of Feig and McCarthy has proven reliable, but Spy shows they can still come up with ways to keep their collaborations fresh. It makes their next collaboration – that all-female version of Ghostbusters – look like even more of a treat.