‘Spy’ is a Smart, Hilarious Subversion of Genre and Gender

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There’s a long lineage of spy films in cinema. After World War II with the advent of the Cold War, tales of espionage become a major part of the pop culture landscape. As quickly as the spy film infiltrated cinema, there was a counterpart that wasn’t far behind – the spy spoof. Whether on TV with Get Smart or in the cinemas with the woeful Casino Royale (the 1967 spoof, not the 2006 Bond film), the spoof of spy tropes have been around almost as long as the spy film. However, the results have been quite varied. For every Austin Powers there’s a Spy Hard or Goldmember. Thankfully, Spy, the latest collaboration between Bridesmaids director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy, is a hilarious take on the spy genre that presents the full range of its leading lady’s talents as well as the varied talents of its robust supporting cast.

The plot of Spy isn’t too imaginative and certain plot points can easily be predicted, but that plays to film’s advantage by keeping the unpredictability confined to the humor. Susan Collins (McCarthy) is a different kind of CIA agent. Working in front of a computer, Susan provides logistical aide to Agent Fine (Jude Law), a superspy working in the field. On his latest mission, Agent Fine has been trapped and killed by the nefarious Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who knows the names and faces of the CIA’s operatives. Despite the objections of Rick Ford (Jason Statham), another CIA superspy, Susan is sent to Paris to observe and report on Boyanov’s attempts to sell a nuclear bomb. With her friend Nancy (Miranda Hart) within the agency taking on her previous role, Susan soon finds herself deep undercover, diving into a world that she should only be observing.

Most people think of Melissa McCarthy playing a certain type of obnoxious character. However, what those people miss is her ability to seamlessly transition from hilarity to heart, a truly rare quality. McCarthy and Feig have crafted a character in Susan Collins that isn’t just a bumbling buffoon. Sure, McCarthy does have her moments of ineptitude and pratfalls, but she’s a character that grows in prowess as she becomes more confident. Under the layers of humor, there’s a message that you’re not who others tell you. This is very much a film about self-confidence, and the evolution of the humor in conjunction with the character reflects that.

It’s not solely up to McCarthy to carry the film comically. She’s given ample help from the supporting cast. As Rock Ford, Jason Statham successfully and memorably lampoons his own tough guy visage, something that many macho actors either refuse or are incapable of doing. As close as Statham comes to stealing the show, once again, it’s Rose Byrne who proves herself to be the most underrated comedic actress working today. She approaches the inherent silliness of the material with a straight face, saying ridiculous lines with a casual naturalism to the delivery. Rounding out the top supporting players of Spy is British comedian Miranda Hart, whose goofy earnestness makes me want to see her in a lot more works. (I’ll be checking out her old BBC sitcom Miranda on HuluPlus later.) Other great supporting players include the always reliable Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, and, a personal favorite, Peter Serafinowicz.

Like the last few Paul Feig movies, Spy does run a bit long but it builds up so much goodwill along the way that it’s never straining. For his parody of action films, Feig proves himself to be a better choreographer of hand-to-hand action sequences than many so-called action directors, though I’d argue that his car chases leave a lot to be desired. There’s a lot to praise about the balance Feig finds between genre and social commentary, subverting gender roles in both instances. Even more difficult, Spy is a film that is a hard-R and a lot of the humor can be considered raunchy but it avoids going for laughs at the low-hanging fruit of stereotypes.

Two scenes featuring an incensed Jason Statham are worth the price of admission alone, but it is Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne who do the most to lift Spy into the realm of the year’s best comedies. I was already excited for Paul Feig’s upcoming Ghostbusters movie, but now I’m ecstatic about the possibilities as he’s proven beyond a doubt that he can handle the dual roles of orchestrating action and comedy. Spy is probably Melissa McCarthy’s best role as a leading lady and only proves that she and Paul Feig are a comedic force to be reckoned with. There are lines in Spy that will be repeated endlessly over the years to come. Now will somebody tell me where’s that Face/Off machine?

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