MOVIE REVIEW: Spy
"SPY"-- 2 STARS
Let the record show that this writer and website wrote Melissa McCarthy off a year ago at this time. Last summer's flop "Tammy" capped a string of steadily declining efforts of dwindling quality since she burst onto the scene with her Oscar-nominated supporting role in "Bridesmaids" in 2011. Her films, like "Identity Thief" and "The Heat," were profitable, but they weren't very good. With her brash and go-for-broke physical comedy, she was the female second coming of Jim Carrey with a Midas touch. The trouble was McCarthy kept playing essentially the same dimwit character every time. Jim Carrey himself will tell you how that doesn't last. You have to change it up, get better company, or get better material.
In her two films since "Tammy," Melissa McCarthy has done both. Going against her bread-and-butter zaniness, playing it straight for a change in last fall's superb Bill Murray vehicle "St. Vincent" was the first step. The new summer spoof comedy "Spy" is the next step, thanks to McCarthy returning as the go-to muse for her "Bridesmaids" writer/director Paul Feig. With Feig and a stellar cast, "Spy" is clearly better company, but it's not a tremendous step up in material or acting for our star. "Spy" feels like one of those movies that is funny the first time and lasts for that one dose, but won't be something you'll revisit and likely something you'll regret you really liked five or ten years down the road. It is worth your Redbox rental, but not all that much more.
The Oscar nominee and Emmy winner plays Susan Cooper, a CIA desk analyst who is single and just turning 40. She's the technician and voice inside the earpiece for the dashing CIA special agent Bradley Fine, a James-Bond-wannabe played by professional James-Bond-wannabe and fellow Academy Award nominee Jude Law. Susan is exceptionally good at her job, but no one notices, least of all Fine. Independent yet non-confident, her co-workers think she's a housecat away from being an internet meme and treated like the equivalent of a team mascot.
When Agent Fine is removed from the equation and the facial identities of the field agents are exposed by the nefarious and enormously bitchy terrorist Rayna Boyanoc (Rose Byrne), CIA boss Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) has few options. Rayna is in possession of a suitcase nuclear warhead that she is proposing to sell to the highest bidder. Driven to complete the work of her partner, Susan volunteers to leave the desk and entire the field. As expected, hi-jinks ensue, some of the James Bond variety and others of the Benny Hill sort.
One strength of "Spy" is the ensemble cast that keeps McCarthy from hogging all of the gags and doing all of the heavy lifting. She has always worked best in an ensemble and Feig surrounds her with people equally willing to squeeze the most out of flimsy material. Rose Byrne plays a delectable villainess that is shrewdly over-the-top in the right places. The same goes for Law as the aloof chauvinist. Janney barks a good order and puts people in place with clever snark. Miranda Hart, making her Hollywood debut from the BBC, stretches the awkward BFF sidekick to match McCarthy, in a role that Rebel Wilson likely would have played before she blew up to her own stardom. She steals scenes, as does Peter Serafinowicz ("Guardians of the Galaxy") hamming it up as a horndog fellow spy involved in the same chase as Susan.
The real joy of the ensemble is seeing Jason Statham step out of kicking peoples' teeth in to play a bumbling caricature of every tough guy he's ever played as rebuffed CIA agent Rick Ford. His argumentative tone and ball-busting are awesome. He can really wind up and sock you with an F-word to make every sentence even more thunderous and hilarious. Watching Statham and McCarthy banter as The Tough Guy vs. The Straight Man rates similar to the pure gold spun by Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg years ago in "The Other Guys" in their office scenes of constant tit-for-tat put-downs and jokes. Just as in that film, "Spy" could have been two hours of that back-and-forth and I would have paid double to see it again. Business picks up when Susan gets her cover blown and takes on a measure of that Statham caricature toughness as a joke, but it's too late and too little to be a saving grace.
What remains in “Spy” is repetitive and somewhat uninspired. Each set piece feels like the same chase and rescue over and over again in a movie that is longer than two hours. The many plot twists of double agents and double crosses pile up and make less sense and create less fun with each reveal. The music and camera work are a pounding mess. The cameos, like rapper 50 Cent, do nothing for spark and the next villain after Byrne, played by Bobby Cannavale, is a entire waste of time.
Feig and company are on a mission to thumb their noses gleefully at gaudy Bond-era spy films, but “Spy” feels more like beating their heads against the walls. For as much as that ensemble is good, plenty of their efforts are wasted on the pointless drive of this movie. Things could have been trimmed and streamlined into something sleeker, rather than overstuffed with tangents. Thanks to McCarthy and her usual go-for-broke speed, the physical comedy is good and keeps this from really being bad, but her effort and the snippets of fun from others isn’t enough to redeem the final product of “Spy.” This is worth your time for a Redbox buck-fifty, but nothing more.
LESSON #1: THE IMPORTANCE OF A GOOD COVER I.D.—As you can see in the previews, the roots of one recurring gag in “Spy” are the sorry sad-sack cover identities Crocker gives Susan to work with in the field. Be it a Mary Kay salesman or a crazy cat lady, they do their job. The last person an international criminal is going to peg as the secret agent is the fat girl in the sweatpants. Hey, if the shoe fits, wear it. That off-putting cover will save your life.
LESSON #2: WORKING IN THE FIELD IS ALWAYS HARDER THAN THE DESK JOB— There’s a reason why construction workers are always tougher than the supervisors. They work in the field and get their hands dirty. They are tougher and more prepared for the hard stuff than “the suit.” At Susan’s job, Bradley Fine may make it look suave and easy, but he still has to be a killer. He still has to throw down in a hand-to-hand fight. Thrust out of the cubicle and into the field, Susan learns to raise her game and step up to the plate to get her hands dirty too and prove her worth beyond being just an analyst. She finds her inner Jack Ryan.
LESSON #3: BUILDING UP YOUR CONFIDENCE THROUGH LIFE EXPERIENCE AND SUCCESS—Susan’s character arc is a basic one. She’s that classic introvert that has never gotten out or tried to be the extrovert. When given the chance and a little bit of freedom, she runs with it and gains confidence with every victory along the way. In doing so, she proves herself to her colleagues, superiors, and, most of all, her own self.