In Spy, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is given many identities—Carol Jenkins, Midwestern tourist; Penny Morgan, cat lady—but underneath her many costumes lies a bona-fide CIA agent. Spy was written and directed by Paul Feig, whose big break came with the seminal Apatow-produced Freaks and Geeks, a high-school comedy about a group of kids struggling to find their identities in a world that tries to assign one for them. His new film is a pitch-perfect vehicle for the brilliant Melissa McCarthy, who is given ample opportunity to show off her talents for both physical comedy and quick one-liners. It’s also an effective spy thriller, with exciting chase scenes and shocking violence. But Spy is more than just a Bond parody because of McCarthy’s Susan Cooper, whose struggle to assert her true identity feels personal for both the film’s star and its writer-director.
As Spy begins, Susan Cooper is a CIA analyst working as the right hand woman to Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a prototypical movie spy—strong, smart, and handsome. Susan speaks to Bradley through an earpiece from the safety of a basement, where she watches his every move via high tech cameras and computers. Her introduction interrupts an otherwise standard thriller setup as Fine pursues a terrorist at a lavish party. As Fine moves through an environment of fancy people and champagne, Susan sits in a drab office with a bat infestation. Susan is in love with Fine, and their flirty banter is funny because of Fine’s obliviousness to its meaning for Susan and Susan’s obliviousness to its lack of meaning for Fine. When Fine is killed by the diabolical Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), and it’s revealed that Rayna knows the identities of the CIA’s other active spies, Susan emphatically volunteers to take her turn out in the field; “This is for Fine,” she repeats. The idea so enrages agent Rick Ford (played by Jason Statham in a surprising comedic role) that he quits the organization, but subsequently follows Susan to Europe to make sure she doesn’t screw up the job.
The joke of Spy is that Susan doesn’t belong in this world because she’s overweight, genuine, and kind, but whenever she ignores these superficial assumptions, she kicks ass. An early scene gives a glimpse at her training video, in which she’s revealed to be an incredibly gifted shooter and fighter. Her supervisor (Alison Janney) is shocked by the video because she’s as used to the typical spy types—suave, confident, and sexy—as we are, and she would never guess that the office baker (there are several references to her love of baking cakes) could possibly be a better agent than someone like Bradley Fine or Rick Ford (who claims that he’s ingested every type of poison known to man). She’s often joined by the lanky, deadpan Nancy (played by British comedian Miranda Hart) who dresses in pant suits and looks like a younger Janet Reno. Her wide-eyed delivery gives the feeling that she can’t believe what she’s saying half the time. I wasn’t familiar with Hart before this film, but she’s apparently somewhat of a star in England, and her approachable charm and distinctly British timing makes it clear why. She’s given almost as many jokes as McCarthy, and this demonstrates one of the greatest qualities of Spy: the whole cast is written to their strengths so that everyone gets a chance to be funny; they’re not all there just to tee up the star’s laughs.
After last year’s nearly unwatchable Tammy, I was beginning to fear that Hollywood would mishandle Melissa McCarthy, but Paul Feig’s film really puts that to bed. She is charming and naive, but also strong and empowered. Yes, there are plenty of jokes at the expense of her weight and looks, but they only serve to show the ignorance of the naysayer, as she subsequently demonstrates her skills. Spy is air-tight, with an energy that remains exciting and fast-paced for its entire two hour running time. When looked at in comparison to Bridesmaids, which Feig also directed but didn’t write, it feels like an infinitely superior example of comedic structure. It’s one of the few modern comedies without Judd Apatow’s name anywhere on it, and therefore we’re saved from the loose, riff-heavy style that his film’s are built around. Spy is non-stop jokes, but every joke, and every pratfall serves its very real, very personal story of a woman breaking through the superficial barriers around her.