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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Spy (Release Date: 6-5-2015)

        The first big comedy of the summer is here, and it's being mis-marketed into oblivion. Despite being advertised as a spiritual successor to The Naked Gun and Austin Powers, Spy derives very little humor from its frame work, which it treats with surprising sincerity. There are plenty of knee-slappers on hand, but hardly any aim to lampoon the structure and ideas of your standard Bond/Bourne type action thriller, and the movie itself plays into them liberally. Here's the thing about satires; they have to actually satirize something, and Spy would much rather lovingly recreate the special agent successes of the past than show them in a fun house mirror. It may be a spy flick, and it may be a spoof, but Melissa McCarthy's latest is far from a spy spoof. It's got another target in mind...

        Sharp, capable, and reeking with self-doubt, Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is a C.I.A. agent who's chosen the comfort and safety of the office over the chaos and excitement of the field. She serves as the eyes and ears of one Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a blatant 007 wannabe who's genuinely grateful for Cooper's assistance despite completely ignoring her obvious affections. Their joint effort to track down a beautiful, mysterious Bulgarian woman named Reyna (Rose Byrne) implodes when the enemy reveals her intimate knowledge of the names and faces of almost every central intelligence agent. Grasping for straws, director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) decides to deploy Cooper on a mission that is strictly track-and-report in nature, though it's not long before Cooper brazenly disregards the blueprint, making her every move on the fly.

        In case you haven't noticed, Melissa McCarthy is a top-tier movie star at this point, her name alone capable of putting ample butts in seats. While Bridesmaids led her to a (still kinda crazy) Best Supporting Actress nomination, and Identity Crisis, The Heat, and Tammy confirmed that she could co-pilot a big screen success, Spy is the first movie to cast her as both protagonist and title character. She makes the most of the opportunity, largely tabling both the pratfalls and wrong-headed self-aggrandizement that have been her comedy calling card up to now in favor of a much lower key. Her Susan Cooper is a fully-fleshed-out character, evolving from meek workplace drone into a filthy-mouthed badass over the course of two hours without anything ever feeling forced. We've seen McCarthy be the butt of the joke plenty of times by now, and with great success, so it's a joy to see her throw out a few zingers of her own. Her character is often the subject of ridicule, but only from her co-stars who are too pig-headed to observe her many talents. The movie clearly thinks the world of her.

        Spy marks McCarthy's third collaboration with writer/director Paul Feig, a pairing that's proved mutually advantageous ever since Bridesmaids broke out back in 2011. His movies possess a stream-of-consciousness approach to comedy, wherein jokes exist both inside the plot, and peppered around the margins, creating a sort of blissful havoc. Vermin randomly drop from the ceiling, 50 Cent appears out of nowhere; these gags are entirely out of context, and help create some unpredictability in a plot otherwise consisting of familiar machinery. Feig is able to wring plenty of jokes out of the actual narrative on display, but he also prioritizes the movie's action and mystery in a fashion that occasionally gets in the way of the humor. If you wanted to see spines broken and elaborate cover-ups exposed, my guess is you'd have purchased a ticket to another movie, and while adherence to rhetoric affords Feig many a guffaw, it also ensures that he maintains his troubling trend of extended runtimes. His latest could have trimmed at least 15 minutes without any discernible detriment.

        Though that would have likely cut into the time Spy spends positively eviscerating male entitlement and masculine ego, the true target of the film's parody. Many have observed the deplorable role of patriarchy in Mad Max: Fury Road, and Tomorrowland cast one of Hollywood's best known actors to play third fiddle to a couple of girls on the run, but this is by far the most gender-focused offering to hit screens this summer. The men of Spy are consistently boorish and profane, ignoring common sense and jeopardizing delicate situations with their self-assured bravado. They recognize nothing but males who are their superiors, and women they'd like to get their hands on; all other humanoids might as well be invisible. At one point, Janney remarks that a rogue agent is acting like, "a dog that got loose and is now shitting and humping his way through the neighborhood." This is Spy's thesis statement, and the lone true target of its parody.

        Wether it be Peter Serafinowicz's complete disregard for personal space, or Jason Statham's physical embodiment of testosterone, Feig's script contains not a single reasonable male character, and I'm going to go ahead and assume that it's not an accident. It's a welcome surprise in what could have been yet another standard spy movie send-up, but the film occasionally forgets its convictions near the end, which is especially troubling when said convictions are about as subtle as a slap in the face. It gets most of the way there, and in a summer who's highest grossing flick featured a bunch of hopped-up action heros using an under-developed African city as a playground for wanton destruction, I'd say its worth celebrating. Spy is sort of like Susan Cooper herself; clever, imperfect, ambitious, clumsy, and filled to the brim with half-baked ideas. In the end, they both get the job done.

Grade: B

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