It’s rare that my reaction to a movie is to want to hug it. But with Spy, that was the sensation that washed over me both times I’ve seen it. It’s not just that it’s really funny and consistently entertaining—it’s that, for the first time since becoming a star, Melissa McCarthy finally is in a movie that knows what to do with her. The terrific, charming comedian who pops up on Saturday Night Live and in interviews—the one fans always suspected was there buried beneath obnoxious roles in the likes of Identity Thief—has finally arrived. I wasn’t just happy watching the movie, I was happy for her and for everybody who will get to see this movie. It’s just such fun.
This isn’t to say that Spy doesn’t have its problems and slow spots. But it’s one of the better summer comedies of the last few years, and it’s easily the best thing McCarthy has done since Bridesmaids back in 2011. Except here, she’s playing an actual character instead of a really funny caricature. Too often, her background in the Groundlings has resulted in her playing exaggerated types on screen—usually, rude, crude jerks. But not since her great little-seen turn in the 2007 drama The Nines has she been given the chance to just play a person. With Spy, she proves she doesn’t need the quirks and mannerisms. She’s great all on her own.
Written and directed by Paul Feig (who also directed her in Bridesmaids and The Heat), Spy is sort of a spoof of spy movies, but it’s really just a spy movie with lots of jokes, only a few of them about the genre conventions. McCarthy plays Susan, a CIA analyst in love with Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a dashing agent who goes out in the field for dangerous missions while she advises him through his earpiece back at her desk in Langley. But when Fine is killed by Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), a snooty Bulgarian heiress in possession of a nuclear bomb, Susan vows vengeance, convincing her superiors that she needs to pursue Rayna. (After all, Rayna has information on all the CIA’s top agents; Susan won’t arouse suspicion.)
This setup has the makings of a classic fish-out-of-water scenario, and Spy gets a lot of comic mileage out of modest, nervous Susan traipsing around Europe after Rayna. (Even better, her commanding officer, played with perfect comic brusqueness by Allison Janney, insists on giving her the most demeaning undercover disguises, usually involving Susan pretending to be a crazy cat lady.)
But what’s most crucial to Spy’s success is how Feig envisions the Susan character. Reportedly, he wrote the part without McCarthy in mind, assuming she wouldn’t have time for the movie now that she was an in-demand star. That’s a telling detail: Susan doesn’t feel like the typical McCarthy character in that she’s sweet and a little harried but also lovable and smart and capable. Spy’s humor doesn’t come from how much of an overbearing doofus Susan is—rather, it’s the fact that a woman with low self-esteem learns to deal with dangerous situations while also finding herself.
The character’s transformation allows McCarthy to behave like a normal person, and it’s cheering to watch her (as Susan) discover how badass and sexy and assertive she can be. There are a few flat moments where scenes feel like they’ve been improvised on the set—insult riffs pop up from time to time—but for the most part, Spy seems tightly scripted, which is understandable since Feig rightly knows that a movie like this works better if there’s actually a coherent plot pushing everything forward. Spy’s story may not very sophisticated, but it’s actually fairly compelling with a few nice twists along the way. Still, nobody watching will care who has the nuclear bomb and what his or her plan is: What matters is that we feel secure enough in where Spy is going so that there’s some sense of stakes, which makes all the gags funnier.
And just as McCarthy has a ball playing this blossoming agent, so too do the actors around her seem to be locked into the film’s tongue-in-cheek tone. Law nails the James-Bond-with-extra-arrogance absurdity of his character, giving the role a light touch. Also terrific is Jason Statham, the predictably rogue CIA agent who has seen some shit in his time and will stop at nothing to tell Susan all about it, even if she’s past the point of caring. (How many people see their wives get hit by two planes?) If this is McCarthy’s best starring vehicle, it’s also clearly Statham’s most enjoyable in many a moon: The sly winking he usually brings to his action-hero roles is here brought entirely to the forefront, sending up his image while remaining damn likeable as always.
The film’s generosity of humor extends to other supporting players, especially Byrne who is a hoot as this snobby ice queen who takes dry pleasure in insulting Susan whenever she has an opportunity. Feig walks a delicate line, mocking certain archetypes of the spy movie without letting the characters fall into broad parody. The same goes for the action scenes, which are pretty solidly executed and taut for a comedy. (If nothing else, Spy, even more so than The Heat, will convince you that this female Ghostbusters is in great hands with Feig: He can do the set pieces as well as the laughs.) Too often, comedies featuring a big star make sure that all the laughs go to the A-lister, leaving everybody else in the movie to be the straight men. Spy keeps rolling out funny characters, whether it’s Miranda Hart’s supportive sidekick or Peter Serafinowicz’s horny Italian operative. If anything, the movie is too stuffed with people, some of them not quite transcending stock roles.
I realize I run the risk of overselling the movie. To be sure, Spy does have a joke-a-minute style that can sometimes feel tiresome, and at two hours the film does run too long. (Also, this movie is once again proof that 50 Cent’s onscreen presence tends to drag down the fun everybody’s having.) But where McCarthy’s post-Bridesmaids career has often drifted toward the crass and the base, the mean and the cruel, Spy is a big, bright, shiny bit of joy. I want to hug this film but I mostly want to hug McCarthy. It’s so good to have this version of her back.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
The Concourse is Deadspin’s home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us at@DSconcourse.