TR Review: Under Cover of Comedy, Spy Sneaks Past Your Defenses
It’s probably a necessity of modern marketing, but Spy is being sold as a different movie than it actually is, assuming that you (understandably) thought you were getting Paula Blart, Ineptly Undercover. Despite the fact that over half the population of this country is classified as overweight, the notion that you can market a fat person in a comedy as anything less than a figure of ridicule simply does not compute in an industry and state where people who don’t starve themselves are routinely shamed.
So understand this – Spy is NOT about Melissa McCarthy as an incompetent substitute spy. It’s about Melissa McCarthy as an eminently qualified spy who came out of the academy top of her class, but has been persuaded through years of emotional manipulation and subtle undermining that she’s best utilized in a desk job, as the Chloe to Jude Law’s Jack Bauer-ish Bradley Fine. That’s a very different story, and one that should please a vast demographic used to being the cellulite-laden butt of every joke.
Now, understand I may be operating from a place of significant bias here, as the husband of a plus-sized actress whose CIA father taught her how to fight, yet has major self-esteem issues due in part to years of her peers tearing her down. Cast Melissa McCarthy as an ass-kicking CIA agent who overcomes that kind of social pressure, and it feels as if you’re targeting me specifically. On the other hand, I’m not interested in being pandered to, like with that Identity Thief movie she was in, so I may be a tougher sell in some ways, and indeed, at first I was not entirely sure what Spy was doing and whether it could hold up. Then Jason Statham entered the story.
Statham, as an agent named Rick Ford who has a penchant for going rogue, is playing the kind of part Will Ferrell usually does – a sexist, cocky, incompetent, yelling-for-no-reason throwback whose boasts about himself habitually escalate to the point of nonsense (Statham is either a better improvisational comedian than you’d expect, or a champion at remembering huge swaths of absurd dialogue with a straight scowl). When Bradley Fine fails a mission and winds up at the bad end of a gun, Ford insists he should be the one to finish things and find a rogue nuke loose in Europe; McCarthy’s Susan Cooper, able to make a well-reasoned case that she knows Fine’s missions better than anyone, finally gets the field assignment. Ford angrily quits, then continues to show up throughout the movie like a spoiled child trying to take back his toys. It’s some of the actor’s best work since his Guy Ritchie days, and a send-up on par with…you know, I’m wracking my brain to think of the last time an action hero was so willing to make himself the butt of a joke while also coming off as one of the worst people ever, and I can’t. This sets a benchmark.
But don’t get me wrong – this isn’t Statham’s movie. It’s McCarthy’s, and her evolution from fan-struck desk geek in an office where rats shit on your lunch and bats habitually descend from the ceiling to get tangled in everyone’s hair, to confident ass-kicker who can verbally dress down evil henchmen to the point of tears and talk her way out of a crashing plane…that’s awesome. As decadent villainess Rayna Boyanov, Rose Byrne represents the patronizing attitude society in general has towards the funny fat person, and Melissa McCarthy movies in general, but rather than simply punish her for it the way Vin Diesel likes to punish cigarette smokers in his films (i.e. with a quick dispatching), director Paul Feig uses McCarthy to disprove the argument at every turn. Rayna inevitably reacts by swearing up a storm in condescending fashion, her semi-bored tone making the intensity of the epithets all the more amusing.
Spy‘s generic title masks the fact that it is anything but, taking on all the clich?s of movies like these and smartly reversing every one while keeping the essential structure and appeal intact. From making Jude Law a James Bond-like character but forcing him to do an American accent, to having Statham riff on things he actually did in other movies in order to make himself sound impossibly preposterous, Feig is on a mission to upend what we expect. But his best trick is making McCarthy an unironic action lead, using the trappings of comedy to slide past your knee-jerk defenses like an actual covert agent slipping in the back door. If he can do the same thing with Ghostbusters, I’ll look forward to it all the more. In the meantime, Spy is not just the franchise we need right now, but the one some of us have deserved for a long, long time.