Film and TV

Melissa McCarthy Is in Her Element in Spy

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 has continued to see her as a grotesque. On screen, 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 that 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; later, after Bradley is executed by Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), she clutches it at his funeral.

Though the setting is the CIA, there is a Susan in every office: invisible, patronized and demeaned.

This Susan begs to take Bradley’s place in Paris to monitor Rayna’s nuclear sales, and it’s no spoiler to say that she winds up on top. Yet Spy isn’t a revenge fantasy. 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.

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. 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 one 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 here.

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.

Feig loves Susan, and he wants us to, too. Yet Spy is too sincere about how the rest of the world treats her to smack on a stupidly happy ending. Susan might save the day, but her battle for respect will never be over.
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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.

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