Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.
If there is one actress working today who deserves the title of comic genius, it wold have to be Melissa McCarthy. From a supporting character in Bridesmaids and a successful role in television as Molly in Mike and Molly, she has become a powerhouse, able to carry a number of films on her own. Among these I would count Spy. Although the film stars some truly exemplary comedic talent, it is McCarthy who really makes the film special, bringing her own particular charisma to the role and in the process offering a potently feminist challenge to the spy genre (long one of the most chauvinist of film genres).
The plot, as you might expect, follows a pretty traditional spy thriller scheme. Susan (McCarthy) is a brilliant tactician and CIA agent; the only problem is that she’s stranded in the basement giving expert advice to Bradley Fine (Jude Law), the sexy man-spy who gets to do all of the exciting stuff (and with whom Susan is hopelessly and unrequitedly in love). When he is (supposedly) killed during a mission, Susan takes it upon herself to undertake his mission, in the process adopting a number of different (and increasingly hilarious) disguises that serve to desexualize her and render her ridiculous. Eventually, however, she proves pivotal to the success of the mission–to find a nuclear bomb and prevent it from falling into the hands of a terrorist group–as she thwarts the efforts of both go-between Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale) and mob boss Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, who makes the perfect icy foil to McCarthy’s earthy wackiness).
One of the things that makes McCarthy such a refreshing voice in comedy is that she is not only razor-sharp with her comic timing and delivery (though she has some of the best of both of any actress since Betty White), but also unafraid to use her body in every conceivable way to gain the laughs. Watching Spy, one gets the sense that McCarthy is one of those fortunate people who is completely comfortable in her body, which I think explains the seamless grace with which she handles even the most absurd of the costume changes in the film, as well as her undeniable sex appeal as she finally eschews the silly outfits in favour of more traditionally glamorous attire.
What really stood out to me, however, was the ending. It would have been so easy for the film to slip into the expected heterosexual closure, with Susan’s unruly feminine energies safely contained by Fine’s masculine persona, but instead we see Susan walking into the sunset with her best friend Nancy, choosing a girl’s night with her instead of a dinner with the man she loves. Now, I’m not saying that in order for a film to be feminist it has to completely disavow the romantic ending, but I for one found it refreshing to have the two female leads privilege their friendship at the end.
While McCarthy definitely steals the show, I have to give credit where it is due. Allison Janney is her usual, bitingly witty self as Susan’s superior Elaine Crocker. Jude Law is his usual suave self, and Jason Statham offers a marvelous caricature of traditional spy/hegemonic masculinity. And while Peter Serafinowicz’s Aldo is creepily sexual, it is often quite difficult to take him seriously, so that his libido becomes a source of mockery rather than any genuine sexual threat. In other words, Spy not only celebrates the fiery intellect of women, but sends up the exaggerated (and always faintly ridiculous) male posturing of the spy/action genre.
I normally don’t go see comedies in the theater, preferring to horde my graduate stipend for films that are really going to blow me away with their intense visuality (yes, I admit to being one of those people go goes to see blockbuster films and almost nothing else). However, I am very glad that I went to see Spy. Fortunately for the rest of us, McCarthy shows no signs of slowing down, so we can but hope that a few more films of this type will be in the pipelines. And we can also hope that this may be, not just the Golden Age of the Reboot and Television, but also the Golden Age of Female-Centered Comedy.