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NPR Arts & Life

A Satisfying 'Spy' Proves There's Life In The Secret Agent Send-Up

Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) and her fellow CIA operative Rick Ford (Jason Statham) in Paul Fieg's <em>Spy</em>.
Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) and her fellow CIA operative Rick Ford (Jason Statham) in Paul Fieg's <em>Spy</em>.

Do we really need yet another spy movie send-up? That's a good question no matter what year it is, but 2015 has already brought us Kingsman: The Secret Service and Barely Lethal, with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on the way — not to mention new installments of the real-deal James Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises. What's more, Paul Feig's new comedy Spy seems to be taunting us with that terrible title, a blah opener that projects its rug-pulling moment from the first frame, and the hacky promotional image of Melissa McCarthy posing undercover as a gun-totin' cat lady. It's a secret agent spoof that seems like it's begging to be thrown out with Johnny English's bathwater.

The surprise, then, is that Spy is actually quite funny. It even proves itself to be in the same league with the first two films in Feig's loose comic trilogy, Bridesmaids and The Heat; not quite as laugh-filled as the latter, but more tightly paced than either, and with a better supporting cast. McCarthy, who stole Bridesmaids out from under Kristen Wiig and was elevated to equal-partner status with Sandra Bullock on The Heat, finally ascends to a solo lead role here, and she can take much of the credit for the film's success. She gives a warm, winning portrayal of Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who once exhibited promise in training but now sits in a vermin-infested basement office coaching the super-suave Bondian agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) as he infiltrates cocktail parties in the field.

When Bradley falls off the grid during a mission, the CIA learns that their latest adversary, a haughty beehive-'doed arms dealer named Rayna (Rose Byrne), knows the identity of all their field agents. This is Susan's chance to shine: As an untested unknown, she's the perfect candidate for a fact-finding mission to Paris. But having watched her employer outfit her male counterparts with the hippest gear and sexiest secret identities for years, she's in for a rude awakening when the CIA plops her in a decrepit hotel straight out of Barton Finkas a divorced mother with lumpy tourist outfits, laxatives in her purse, and a Beaches watch. "How much am I supposed to like Beaches?" she asks the bored gadgeteer. "A lot, I'd imagine, if you have the watch," he says, shrugging.

For the past few years, McCarthy has been walking a fine line between unique personality types and stock overweight-sidekick gags. Her role as Susan demonstrates her gift at crafting a charming yet incredibly salty screen presence even when the joke isn't on her. In fact, it may be on her casting agents: Susan's struggle to escape her unflattering assigned secret identities is the story of an experienced, competent professional woman fighting the roles her superiors expect her to play. Meanwhile, the men she works with all fail her in different ways. Bradley uses Susan's lingering crush on him to walk all over her in the workplace; a valuable Italian ally (Peter Serafinowicz) leers at her nonstop; and snarling rogue agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), convinced Susan is going to botch the mission, keeps finding inventive new ways to botch it himself.

Statham, brilliantly mocking his usual alpha-dog demeanor, has never been better: he rattles off improbable boasts of past exploits even as he shows off Clouseau-like incompetence. The film makes clear that Rick, and likely the other field agents as well, are still alive only because invisible desk workers like Susan keep bailing them out of self-created jams. Byrne, too, is a highlight, riffing on a variation of the cloistered high-society queen she played in Bridesmaids. She and McCarthy have several satisfying scenes where they lob outrageous insults at each other. The film is stuffed with other great ringers, like Miranda Hart from PBS's Call The Midwife and Allison Janney, so it's easy to forgive the stagnant action scenes and tired Bond riffs (ooh, an opening-credits pop ballad, how original).

In 2013, Linda Holmes (my editor, ahem) noted, "About 95 percent of The Heat could be made and would still be considered comedy if both of the protagonists were (1) men, and (2) thin." What's brilliant about Spy is that precisely the opposite is true. It matters that the star is a heavyset woman. The comedy is built, not around easy jokes about her weight or gender, but around the ways she must fight to be treated fairly in a line of work that favors thin men: spying or Hollywood, take your pick. When Rick scoffs at the notion that Susan could seduce a male target, she wonders why that's so hard to believe. As sad as it is to say, sneaking an exchange like that into a big studio comedy might be the most impressive spy maneuver of all.

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