When I reviewed BRIDESMAIDS, I spent a great deal of my verbiage on Melissa McCarthy’s supporting performance. Rarely had I seen an actress, or actor for that matter, so fearless, so sure of him- or herself, and with such a preternatural gift for discovering humor in the most unexpected places. She was nominated for an Oscar™, and rightly so. Her later excursions onto the big screen have been a mixed bag, but even when the material was not great, she was never less than terrific. In THE HEAT, directed by BRIDESMAIDS director Paul Feig, she was sublime. She has reunited with Feig again in SPY, which he also wrote, and McCarthy once again shines her brightest as Susan Cooper, a self-effacing, yet fully empowered woman with a gift for espionage and making the air-brushed villainess of the piece come off as so much less interesting by comparison.
Susan works in the CIA basement, running surveillance for field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), the epitome of suave sophistication and grace under pressure. As the little voice in his ear telling him where the bad guys are, and which door to take in order to deal with them, she is his rock, and together they have bantered their way through 10 years. Naturally Susan is in love with Bradley. Naturally, romance has never crossed his mind. Naturally hope that this will change has kept Susan from moving out of the basement, where vermin run a little too free, and out into the field, where her natural talents should have led her.
All that changes when things go wrong for Bradley. Susan is the only agent up to speed on the requisite dastardly plot that Bradley was attempting to thwart who is also not on the dastardly plotter’s radar. So out into the field she goes, armed with a series of ego-deflating disguises, and what can only be described as a set of snarky hi-tech weapons to help her accomplish her task.
This is why McCarthy is a genius, not just as someone who can make us laugh, but as someone who can create a character with depth and feeling beyond the obvious. Far from a buzzkill, it gives us an investment in what happens next. What in other hands would be mere schtick, mistaking a hot towel for an appetizer for example, becomes an opportunity to show off a quick wit and a sophisticated ability to laugh at herself. She embraces the absurdity of the situations in which she finds herself, commenting on it not by winking at the audience, but by ferociously committing to it with rock-solid sincerity, thereby raising it to even greater heights of delight. When faced with her first challenge in the field, there is no surprise involved that she’s not just competent, she’s a superstar. Even if she does throw up after her first kill, and, no, I don’t usually appreciate this lowest common denominator of humor, but all concerned have given it refreshingly light touch. Few can make an accidental killing, and a gruesome one at that, as funny as McCarthy and Feig have here.
McCarthy is equally light, not to mention nimbly credible, in a shout-out to martial arts flicks that has Susan crossing knives, cookware, and flying feet of fury with a slinky assassin in a kitchen showdown. One of McCarthy’s great gifts is the pointed aside, and of the veritable cornucopia with which this film is gifted, this one, when she stops to comment on how much rage is in her opponents green jumpsuit, is not just a one-liner delivered with a superb deadpan wonder, it’s also an assessment of the situation, and the wheels can be seen to turn in Susan’s head about how to take charge of it.
The plot is an homage to those spy flicks from the 1960s, populated with opulent lifestyle, flashy cars, exotic locales, and the twisted characters that only someone who loves those films could conjure up. As Susan’s nemesis, Rose Byrne delivers withering remarks with the cool refinement of a cat toying with its prey while wearing a series of coifs that resemble nothing so much as an aggressively ruffled bolster. As Susan’s irritation, a rogue agent given to popping up with impunity and then delivering extensive monologues about how many things have failed to kill him, Jason Statham does a delicious deadpan spoof of the action hero characters he usually plays. As Susan’s best friend, Miranda Hart is a chirpy giantess of good intentions. As Susan’s boss, Allison Janney proves yet again why she is one of the shrewdest put-down artist working today. Bobby Canavale, as the money man mixed up in the McGuffin they are all after, gets it exactly right by looking devastating in a double-breasted suit and mocking grin. The gem, though, is Peter Serafinowicz as an Italian agent with boundless libido, boundary issues, and a can-do spirit.
SPY presents that rarest of film fauna, the smart confident woman who doesn’t talk back to those who think she’s not up to the task, but rather shows them exactly how wrong they are. Yet even when she’s gloating, there’s an irresistible charm, a twinkle of mischief, and a whole lot of satisfaction. That goes for the film, too.