Directed by: Paul Feig; Runtime: 120 minutes
Whether he's directing someone else's material or his own, Paul Feig's style of comedy wasn't something I expected to be as polarizing with moviegoers as it's become over the past few years. Despite Bridesmaids' wide critical and commercial success, it has built a good proportion of detractors since its release, pointing to it being shrill and unlikable. The lukewarm-yet-positive reception and thriving box office presence of buddy-cop romp The Heat suggests a continuation of that; however, the exaggerated, obvious crudity of the writing and focus on Melissa McCarthy's now-trademark style got far fewer laughs out of me amid its mess of a script. With Spy, Feig's quasi-spoof of its namesake subgenre, things seem to have come full-circle: despite praiseworthy usage of the supporting cast and its plucky R-rated initiative towards lampooning Bourne and Bond antics, less of the humor strikes the chord that it should amid the shtick that follows McCarthy around, expending her amiable screen presence on incredibly transparent and clumsily crass espionage satire.
McCarthy once again teams with Paul Feig to play Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA agent who has funneled her talents into the real-time monitoring, analysis, and handling of all-star field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), whose roguish charisma and rapport with Susan has led to some one-sided infatuation. When one of Fine's missions -- the search for the daughter, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), of a deceased terrorist who knew the whereabouts of a nuclear weapon -- goes south and the identities of several CIA operatives are compromised, the idea is introduced for Susan to go out in the field and gather intel. Considering their limited options and time sensitivity, and despite the resistance to the idea from renegade agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), her boss (Allison Janney) decides she's the best choice for the operation. Armed with aliases tailored to her appearance, Susan Cooper heads overseas and attempts to trail those involved, later finding herself way over her head when she becomes personally wrapped up in Rayna Boyanov's network.
Unsurprisingly, the identities doled out to Cooper focus on accentuating the frumpiness of her disposition, based around that stereotypical cat lady and bible thumper vibe of puffy hair, tacky sweaters, and big eyewear. That, unfortunately, embodies the brand of humor highlighted in Spy, where conspicuous identities that aren't fooling anyone -- and sure as hell aren't keeping Cooper under the radar -- jab at her physical traits and seem inexplicably designed to make her life a living hell while undercover. Sure, she later takes control of the situation in a crow-pleasing display of bucking those assumptions and conquering insecurities, but not after the writing's concentration on those aliases created by the CIA wreaks havoc on the integrity of the premise. Spy never positions itself to be that broad of a parody, to which Feig attempts to have his cake and eat it, too, by frequently overstepping the boundary that separates zany comedy from the likes of Casino Royale or National Lampoon-caliber silliness. "We just need someone who can shadow them without attracting attention". Yeah, okay.
The intent with Cooper and her exaggerated identities is understandable, though, bringing out facets of Melissa McCarthy's wide stable of characteristics without them sticking around long enough to grow tiresome in the espionage setting: the jittery sweetness of chef Sookie; the bumbling awkwardness of bridesmaid Megan; and, especially, the trigger-happy mouth of officer Mullins. They're tempered by the modest, emerging attitude of Susan Cooper herself, whose tactical and intellectual talents as a CIA agent have been suppressed by her fondness for Fine and her self-perceived inadequacy, forming into a likable, genuine character for McCarthy -- and a physically capable one! -- that offsets her missteps in Tammy and Identity Thief. Alas, she's constantly working against the brashness of Paul Feig's script, which reduces many of her scenes to gags involving bat turds and projectile vomit, expletive-riddled rants that overstay their welcome, and forced tangents about her appearance and doe-eyed affection for Fine, all of which try to make Cooper appear more disjointed than she actually is.
It's almost as if there's another movie going on in Spy that's independent of the raunchy antics surrounding McCarthy: a smarter and more restrained send-up of the genre that's persistently interrupted by its over-comedic relief, driven by the individual quirks of the proficient supporting cast. You could argue that's part of the point of Feig's film, that someone has stumbled into this cloak-and-dagger atmosphere within which she really doesn't belong (even though, minor spoiler, she actually kinda does), yet there's a pronounced, unfunny disparity in quality between the two sides. The cheeky charisma and overpraised skill of Bradley Fine charms his way to life through Jude Law, someone whose name frequently comes up in James Bond rumors. Jason Statham channels the jocular energy of his roles in Crank and Guy Ritchie's work into the brutish and boastful agent Rick Ford, delivering a few stronger laughs despite his on-the-nose timing. And Rose Byrne intensifies her uptight mannerisms within the ruthless heir to a terrorist kingdom, who stringently and humorously embodies the aspects of a convincing, flawed villain.
Director Feig also juggles the action demands of Spy within its mature-rated setting, where his familiarity with physical comedy emerges in smartly-edited stealth and crowd sequences that emphasize both energy and wit ... and understands the right times to shed a little blood. While some of the film's validity gets diminished by the silliness of certain situations -- a bulky scooter chasing down a performance BMW; an overlong brawl between Cooper and a highly-trained assassin -- that once again struggle with the boundaries of its comedic identity, the momentum of the action stays consistent throughout its mirroring and subversion of beats from the other Casino Royale. Yet again brandishing a gun but also telegraphing a sense of style alongside it, McCarthy keeps up with the unassuming aptitude of Cooper's hand-to-hand combat and firearms training, never looking like an actual spy, by design, but always appearing capable enough to scrape by in the obstacles thrown at her throughout the ordeal. The action isn't anything impressive or redemptive, but it shows a little versatile polish from Feig.
Within a globe-trotting swirl of red herrings, plot twists, and fluid allegiances befitting a standard entry of the genre, Spy ultimately comes up short in bonding its dueling objectives into a cohesive picture, reaching the finish line more on the merits of its meager levity within the action than its cluttered, blatant humor. Therein lies the rub of Feig's latest flick: not only does the comedy aspect frequently fall flat across its two-hour runtime, it also gets in the way of the overlong pacing by dwelling on incompatible shenanigans. By the time Susan Cooper reaches the climax of her outing away from the desk, the director crams in enough deep-butt, groping, and assorted slapstick jokes -- despite Peter Serafinowicz stealing attention as a hornball Italian ally -- to eclipse the triumphant inclinations of its fully-empowered finale. What Spy lacks is a more covert, less garish approach, one which should take Susan Cooper and her mind-boggling climb out the CIA's basement, already an easy source of situational humor, a hair more seriously than it does.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 10/09/2015