- Spy (movie 2015) review: Star-billed Melissa McCarthy rises to the occasion in Paul Feig’s female-centered comedy-thriller.
Spy (movie 2015) review: Paul Feig’s female-focused + (mostly) gender-blind action comedy is a made-to-order Melissa McCarthy showcase
There’s been a lot of talk around the ol’ virtual water cooler about the feminist messaging embedded in Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller’s riveting, post-apocalyptic free-for-all features the male title character taking a back seat to a fierce, battle-scarred woman liberating five female sex slaves and delivering them to a group of women suggestively called the Vulvani and said to be living in a restorative oasis called the Green Place of Many Mothers.
It’s Trojan horse feminism, for sure: Many guys would think twice before watching the movie if they knew what Miller was trying to say with it. And yet, for all its ragged, dust-choked, girl-power finery, there is another feminist statement at a theater near you that, in its own way, is just as transgressive.
Spy is an action comedy where the hero, her boss, her sidekick, and the villain are all women. The movie makes no comment about this. It simply is.
This hero – a forty-something CIA console jockey pressed into service for a dangerous, globe-hopping mission – is overweight, but not one joke is directed at her size. The movie makes no comment about this either, nor does it ask for our congratulations. Its humor, admittedly, is not entirely gender blind. But it’s gender-blind where it matters.
If Spy were actually written and directed by a woman, the world would probably stop spinning on its axis. Instead, the ringmaster here is Paul Feig, which is no consolation prize.
Feig, the writer-director of actor-indulgent, fitfully sloppy, slightly unhinged modern comedies, is a true champion of funny women in film. His muse, if 2011’s uproarious Bridesmaids and 2013’s less uproarious The Heat are any indication, is Melissa McCarthy.
Spy is the first time McCarthy has been asked to carry a film by her lonesome and the spotlight only amplifies her gifts. There is simply no funnier performer working in movies right now and there is currently no more exciting and rewarding moment in filmed comedy than watching Melissa McCarthy ad-lib.
No Austin Powers
Spy stars McCarthy as Susan Cooper, whose unglamorous CIA job is sitting at a console and feeding intel to the agent in the field, in this case her superspy crush, Bradley Fine (Jude Law, embracing the part). When Fine is killed by beautiful Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, who’s become a delightfully versatile comic player), it shocks Susan and it shocks us, if for a different reason.
Surprisingly and refreshingly, Feig is not attempting a silly, Austin Powers-type spoof, which would only cheapen McCarthy’s contributions. Instead, this is a polished bit of James Bond-inspired action-comedy engineering, shot (in widescreen Euro-tones), scored (complete with James Bond-style opening credits), and cut (although we could have done without the slo-mo effects) like a legit spy thriller tweaked to accommodate comedic flights of visual and verbal fancy. And at its center is a character whose emotions are credible, varied, and relatable.
Susan’s arc allows Feig and McCarthy ample opportunities to score laughs based on how others see Susan and how Susan sees herself.
Initially, she is a mousy, anonymous, desk-bound singleton, which, to the agency’s dismay, makes her the best person to continue Fine’s mission. After stops in Paris, Rome, and Budapest in search of Rayna and the nuclear weapon in her possession, she graduates from an agent so green she barfs on her first kill to a cocksure spy hurling wicked invectives while jumping onto a moving helicopter.
This is not to say Feig isn’t above a cheeky revisiting of genre clichés. Instead of high-tech weaponry, Susan is issued tools disguised as embarrassing over-the-counter pharmaceuticals like hemorrhoid patches and toenail fungus spray. She assumes a succession of dowdy, unsexy covers that make her look like “someone’s homophobic aunt” or, possibly, “Santa’s wife.”
The laughs are mixed with very generous amounts of foul language and violence, including one fight in an industrial kitchen between Susan and a foreign agent that becomes bracingly vicious.
Self-aware tough guy
Expertly cast supporting players get laughs of their own and allow McCarthy to volley with a disparate parade of characters.
Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) is a horny Italian spy who desperately pines for Susan, but not because he likes plus-sized women or some other cheap and easy reason that lesser films would have made into a running gag. He wants her because he wants her and that’s the end of it and good for him.
Top of class, though, is B-movie brick house Jason Statham, as a fellow CIA agent constantly reminding Susan that she’s out of her depth. Although Statham occasionally overplays it, the scenes where he rattles off his ever more ridiculous spycraft accomplishments (“This arm has been ripped off completely and reattached with this arm”) are hilariously self-aware.
To further cement Spy’s transgressive bonafides, a team of research scientists using groundbreaking technology (me and a 5-year-old desktop computer) attempted to find recent examples of a Hollywood comedy where the only name above the title, and the only person on the poster, was a woman.
Emma Stone in the bright and bubbly Easy A is about it. There’s a Kristen Wiig in there somewhere too. Katherine Heigl doesn’t count; her movies are tragedies.
There are certainly others, but Spy trumps them all because it cost $65 million, a hefty enough price tag for a comedy to demand ample return on investment.
So really, Spy’s greatest achievement is getting a bunch of men to bet $65 million on the comedic talent of one woman. Turns out that woman is worth every penny.
Spy (movie 2015) cast & crew
Direction & Screenplay: Paul Feig.
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Miranda Hart, Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Peter Serafinowicz, Björn Gustafsson, Carlos Ponce.
Cameos: Zach Woods, Verka Serduchka, Ben Falcone, 50 Cent.
Cinematography: Robert Yeoman.
Film Editing: Melissa Bretherton & Brent White.
Music: Theodore Shapiro.
Production Design: Jefferson Sage.
Producers: Peter Chernin, Michele Colombo, Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson, and Jenno Topping.
Production Companies: Chernin Entertainment | Feigco Entertainment.
Distributor: 20th Century Fox.
Running Time: 120 min.
Country: United States.
“Spy (Movie 2015)” notes
Spy movie worldwide gross via boxofficemojo.com.
Spy movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Jason Statham and Melissa McCarthy Spy movie images: 20th Century Fox.
“Spy (Movie 2015): Transgressively Feminist Melissa McCarthy” last updated in April 2023.