Over the last few years, Paul Feig has carved out a niche as the director of female-driven comedies like Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids and The Heat. On the surface, it would seem easy to just drop women into the leading roles of standard comedy formulas, but as we just saw in Hot Pursuit‘s colossal misfire it’s not quite that simple. Feig shows a real knack for this stuff, though, and Spy — his first time writing the screenplay of one of these projects as well — is his best yet.
After The Heat broke ground as a female-driven action comedy, it’s not too big a leap from buddy-cop to spycraft as the underlying genre, especially given how ripe spy action flicks are for parody. And who could be further from the common idea of a secret agent than Melissa McCarthy, which is exactly the hook.
International criminal heiress Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) has taken out one of the CIA’s top agents, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), and knows the faces of the others, making it impossible to put one of them near her as she tries to sell a suitcase nuke with the help of fixer Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale). The only option is to send in Fine’s supporting agent who fed him all the intelligence he used to pull off his flashy spycraft, Susan Cooper (McCarthy).
Obviously espionage action is a very male-driven field, and some men see a woman “invading” their space as a threat; Rick Ford (Jason Statham) goes rogue and decides to take on Boyanov himself, despite the fact that she and her henchmen know who he is. But Spy also picks up on subtler ways that men mistreat women in the workplace. In Italy, Cooper is teamed up with Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz), whose strategy with women is to just hit on all of them. And it turns out that Cooper actually tested as an ideal candidate to be a field agent, but Fine himself held her back to advance his own career.
Of course it’s not just men who sabotage women at work; Feig’s script is also sharply written about how women work against each other. Cooper’s boss, Crocker (Allison Janney), is a tough-as-nails career woman who pulled herself up through the glass ceiling, but now belittles and scorns other women who aren’t able to do the same, blaming them for their difficulties. Karen Walker (Morena Baccarin) is the glamorous distaff counterpart to the suave Fine-style agents, basking in the privilege of her beauty. Even Nancy (Miranda Hart), Susan’s office-gal friend warns her against reaching above her station.
But some of the hardest opposition comes from Cooper herself, with all the misgivings and self-doubt that a lifetime of being a woman — particularly one who doesn’t look like Morena Baccarin or Rose Byrne — has drilled into her. She gets assigned cover identities like the cat-lady vice president of a midwestern town’s garden club. Her mother’s lunchbox notes to “give up on your dreams” are jokes, but they tell a bitter truth; they stand for years and years of people telling this woman who she could and could not be, all because she’s not a man, and she’s not a model. Ha ha, only serious.
The comedy in Spy is raucously, uproariously funny, with nary a dropped beat. Statham is so good as a parody of his usual roles that it’s surprising he hasn’t really been asked to do this before now. McCarthy is as game as ever for physical comedy, but this time the jokes aren’t at her expense, and she’s not asked to play the slovenly fat lady. If Feig is capable of this sort of smart, impeccably-executed comedy that also speaks to the real underlying experiences of women in the workplace and society, then we’ve got a lot to look forward to in his upcoming Ghostbusters movie.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.