The notion of ‘taking it down a notch’ runs throughout Spy. A brutish secret agent boasts of his manly death-defying feats; a snooty heiress unleashes strings of offensive insults; a folksy woman adopts a confrontational, aggressive persona.
They’re all pretty much told by someone else to tone it down, and that’s part of the joke, as writer and director Paul Feig’s action comedy Spy opts for excess when it comes to humor. So much is thrown at the screen, so much is tried, and inevitably some hit, while others fall flat.
This marks the third time Feig has teamed up with actress Melissa McCarthy; she was a supporting character in Bridesmaids, shared the spotlight with Sandra Bullock in The Heat, and now leads in this polished, explosive piece of filmmaking. Like those films, it’s a woman’s show here too: McCarthy is the C.I.A. desk agent turned field operative, Miranda Hart plays her awkward and endearing colleague always along for the ride, while Allison Janney is her no-nonsense boss, and hysterical in every scene.
Rose Byrne meanwhile is our villain, a likeable one as well as the aforementioned vile heiress. She knows the whereabouts of a nuclear bomb, and will sell it to the highest bidder (among those is Bobby Cannavale), and McCarthy’s jolly Susan Cooper is sent to track and report on her after the identities of the other secrets agents are compromised.
With McCarthy though, it seems Feig isn’t sure from where to exactly find the funny – or at least he tries everything. The conceit isn’t that Cooper is physically awkward as an agent; she’s shown formidable in combat. It also isn’t that she is bumbling; she seems to have massive database of knowledge stored in her head, and is the eyes and ears of super agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). The joke then rests on how appearances are deceiving, but it doesn’t always stick either.
So while Cooper is given unflattering alias and cover stories, usually involving owning a lot of cats, we’ also get to see her fall down once in a while despite beating up bad guy. We get her being pure and precocious, but when forced to pretend to be someone else, she dons a vulgar personality, so that we can see that other side of McCarthy.
The plot matters little, getting more convoluted as the film progresses, but Spy eventually hits it mark, albeit shooting wildly in long stretches. Jason Statham’s Agent Rick Ford provides among the most laughs (as does Ms. Byrne) as the self-proclaimed greatest spy in the world, listing unbelievable feat after feat, incredulous at a seemingly untrained woman going out into the field. He pops in every now and then, steals the scene with his indefatigable and inane confidence, and then runs out.
Thankfully in between his appearances, Ms Byrne appears, as a condescending and uppity snob with a foul tongue and no patience. When Cooper saves her life at a bar, she is taken up as a companion, in part because she wants to say thanks, in part because she is easy to make fun of, and in part because the movie needs it.
That’s because Spy is a series of random scenarios fabricated in order to foster comedy, getting to situations where one character can riff off the other, often ending with one saying you’ve gone too far. It’s artificially constructed, and makes little sense, leaving Spy hysterical in fits and bouts, a patchwork of a film that lasts too long but satisfies in the moment.