If you're a fan of Melissa McCarthy, watching her career has been a frequently frustrating experience. Yes, she's found success as an actress -- starring in an impressive string of box office hits -- but in each of these films, she's called upon to play characters who are dowdy, bumbling, crass, bullying, or some combination of each; the single word that best defines her roles to date is "abrasive." But in interviews, the actress comes across as smart, pretty, and charming; qualities she's rarely, if ever, allowed to display on screen. McCarthy herself seems unsure exactly what audiences want from her, as evinced by the lackluster results from her turn as writer and producer of last summer's cringe-inducing comedy "Tammy," directed by her husband Ben Falcone.
Thank God for Paul Feig. Finally there's someone out there who knows how to utilize McCarthy's considerable talents. Following three successful collaborations together (after "Bridesmaids" -- which earned McCarthy an Oscar nomination -- and "The Heat") Feig's written the excellent "Spy" expressly for McCarthy, giving her one of her best roles to date, and thankfully keeping the "fat lady fall down" humor to a minimum.
McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a meek, mild-mannered CIA analyst whose job is to provide ground support to super-spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Excellent at what she does, she's also hopelessly in love with the dashing agent, though he remains either oblivious or deliberately keeping her at bay. But when Fine is executed during a mission by a Bulgarian arms dealer named Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), it's revealed that Boyanov has come into possession of the names of the CIA's active field agents. With all the top agents compromised, a new strategy is needed. Having had plans to become an agent herself before Fine convinced her that her talents would best be employed behind a desk, Susan is technically field-certified, and persuades her superior (Allison Janney) to send her to Europe to track (but not engage with) Boyanov.
Expecting to be provided the sort of glamorous identities typically given to CIA agents, she's instead saddled with frumpy divorcees and cat ladies -- personas that reveal a little too precisely how she's seen by those around her ("I look like somebody's homophobic aunt!" she complains at one point); her weapons are disguised as anti-fungal spray, hemorrhoid ointments, and stool softeners. While these moments earn laughs, Feig and McCarthy don't hesitate revealing how much Susan is hurt by the way she's constantly being sold short. She's also given support in the form of her office friend, Nancy (Miranda Hart).
Contrary to expectation, the central joke of the film doesn't arise from Susan's ineptness, but from the way she rises to the occasion. She's inexperienced, but extremely capable, and watching her excel is immensely satisfying. Susan finding her self-confidence after hearing for far too long that she isn't capable of more, provides the film a nice emotional core around which to build the comedy. In many ways the plot doubles as a bit of commentary on how Hollywood has used McCarthy's talents over the years. That McCarthy is great isn't much of a surprise, and Feig allows her the opportunity to show her range as she cycles through each new identity.
But the real comedic revelation of the film is Jason Statham, playing CIA agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who's so incensed by Susan's promotion that he goes rogue in protest, popping up at inconvenient moments to interrupt her mission and boasting about his absurdly badass past exploits.
I've complained before in these pages about the dismal visual state of American comedies, and "Spy" does nothing to change this. This modern era of comedy tends to rely heavily on dialogue for laughs -- which isn't a bad thing, but when there are so many methods that can be utilized to generate laughs, why limit yourself? The concept of "Spy" isn't too far removed from something like "Hot Fuzz," playing with the tropes of a specific genre, but Feig isn't nearly the visual stylist that Edgar Wright is. But to be fair, "Spy" does demonstrate a marked improvement, and the action sequences are competently staged. McCarthy even gets a Jackie Chan-esque scene of hand-to-hand combat that's just great.
Where Feig's genius lies is in his work with actors. He finds room for each of his performers to get moments to shine. Statham shows off previously untapped comedic skills, while Rose Byrne nearly walks off with the movie. Hair piled high and a constant expression somewhere between boredom and having just smelled something awful, she's the film's MVP. By its end, "Spy" seems to be setting itself up sequels, so it appears that McCarthy may be getting her own, tailor-made franchise, and nothing would make me happier.