“Spy” has proven to be the funniest film in years, by anybody – Hollywood, Europe, or Latin America. This is a considerable achievement on behalf of Paul Feig, who receives sole credit as writer for a movie that lasts for two hours without any lulls in the humor. And for what it is worth, as a parody of the James Bond franchise, “Spy” is much more entertaining, more suspenseful, even more poignant, than the last two Bond movies.
However, much of the effectiveness of “Spy” should also be attributed to its unlikely star, Melissa McCarthy. The comedienne has defied all conventional wisdom about women in Hollywood — such as that for maximum popularity, an actress should be young, slender, and only take on roles in which the principle male actors are romantic and/or heroic leads. Yet despite being middle-aged fat, Ms. McCarthy has become the one of the top stars at the box office right now as the lead in a spy thriller where she takes on most of the action.
Of course, that is the original premise of “Spy,” that a woman-of-size would assume the risks and responsibilities of a secret agent that in movies is more often the province of virile males. Indeed, at the beginning of the film, McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is safely ensconced in Washington D.C. in a CIA basement as a surveillance operator, though providing life-saving guidance to a sexy spook, Jude Law’s Bradley Fine, with whom she is infatuated.
Unfortunately for Susan, her feelings are not reciprocated, and even though she has saved Fine’s life, he regards her only with big-sister affection. In fact, in an obtuse gesture of appreciation, and an unasked for, unwarranted acknowledgement of her love of sweets, Fine gifts Susan with a pendant in the form of a pastry. If it were not for her friendship with her co-worker in the agency basement, Nancy B. Artingstall, played by British comedienne Miranda Hart, a tall colleague who also does not conform to a conventional standard of feminine appeal, Susan would feel completely humiliated and alone at work.
Unexpectedly, however, Fine is assassinated, or so it seems, and a new operative must replace him quickly to prevent the sale of a nuclear bomb destined for New York City. With much hesitancy Susan’s supervisor, played by Allison Janey, allows her to accompany the “official” intelligencer to Paris, where she is supposed to continue doing only surveillance work.
However, beyond her boss’s control and free to do as she likes, Cooper demonstrates she has the right stuff for a super-spy, and not just in her observational skills, but in her capacity to risk physical peril.
For a writer, there is no genre more difficult than comedy, and the quality of humor in Hollywood, with its excessive reliance on infantile, puerile, and scatological jokes, has been in a steep decline for years. Thus, to its credit, despite an overuse of R-rated profanity, much of the mirth in “Spy” is provoked by funny, crazy, yet credible situations.
For example, just before a shootout between Susan Cooper and the bad guys on the streets of Paris, with Cooper ready to draw, she is calmly approached by an American tourist, who asks her for the nearest location of the nearest Popeyes.
There is, of course, pathos in Cooper being rejected by a man she longs for romantically, but her character never sinks into self-pity. Furthermore, a gradual but surprising camaraderie develops between Cooper and the trim and beautiful Bulgarian spy, played by Rose Byrne, who starts off as her mortal enemy. Thus, “Spy” provides a meaningful theme, feminist solidarity, to compliment the comedy.
To Feig’s credit as well, not even the most brutal villains in the film lack a degree wit and intelligence. Of course, the film would be nothing without the comedic flair demonstrated by cast, with Jason Statham, especially, a surprise self-parody of his action-hero persona.
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