Last year, in the Bill Murray vehicle St. Vincent, Melissa McCarthy did something she’d never done before in the movies. She did less.
Her role, neither a wallflower nor the raunchy life of the party, required an easier, lower-key brand of comic truth than the material for which she’d become rich and famous, on TV in Mike and Molly, and in the movies. She came through. Like many highly skilled actors, McCarthy is consistently a little better than her material, and when the material’s strong, as in the case of Bridesmaids, she’s a ringer. Contrivances such as Identity Thief, not so much.
Good news, then, that McCarthy’s latest, Spy, reunites her with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig for their third collaboration. (The middle one was The Heat, co-starring Sandra Bullock.) Coming off St. Vincent, McCarthy exhibits a newfound subtlety in the best scenes in Spy, which is a strange thing to say about a film with a full quotient of R-rated trash talk, along with a barrage of violence played more or less straight, to mixed results. I prefer my comedies a little less bone-crunchy.
But the cast, led by McCarthy as a behind-the-scenes CIA analyst who finally gets a taste of the James Bond action, drives this vehicle with supreme confidence. The laughs are there, small bits and large. Feig has made three viable commercial comedies in a row, a minor miracle in itself.
The fun of Spy comes in watching the right actors mess with their own images, blithely. Susan Cooper (McCarthy) works as the earpiece and remotely connected intel expert for superspy Bradley Fine, played by spot-on Jude Law. When Fine runs afoul of Bulgarian arms dealers and disappears, presumed dead, Cooper gets her chance to enter the field, even if her mission is designed as a “track and report,” not a maim and kill.
Where Spy goes from there, to various European capitals played mostly by Budapest, is predictable in many ways but fresh in a few others. Jason Statham rolls in as a hilariously belligerent spy seething with resentment regarding Cooper’s newbie status. Miranda Hart of the BBC-TV series Call the Midwife plays Cooper’s best pal and fellow analyst, and the rapport between her and McCarthy helps make the movie, just as Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph’s friendship made Bridesmaids.
Law’s consistently funny, simply by bringing Bondian smugness (think Pierce Brosnan but smugged up to 11) into fruitful new territory. His character is introduced with an outlandishly effective sight gag involving an ill-timed sneeze. It might be the grandest laugh in the film. As the snooty arms dealer’s daughter, Rose Byrne provides the needed contrast to our heroine; she’s a Bond girl whose hair appears to be its own country.
The more paranoid and surveillance-prone we become as a culture, the more spy movies we’ll see, and the more spy comedies we’ll see in response. Feig the director is required by Feig the screenwriter to chase after a wearying amount of plot, sometimes entertainingly, sometimes less so. But McCarthy’s latest works. It’s a showcase for its star that takes care to spread the jokes around. And it finds straight-faced aces such as Allison Janney (as a CIA director) to show how less can be more.
Spy (R): ★★★✩✩