Movie Review: “Spy”

Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Allison Janney, Peter Serafinowicz
Paul Feig

Director Paul Feig makes refreshingly nice comedies. There’s not a mean-spirited bone in his body. Not for a second does he ever poke fun at his characters. The creator behind one of the greatest and sweetest shows ever to grace television, “Freaks & Geeks,” loves all his characters – the screw-ups, the underdogs and even the bullies. That empathy has carried over to his feature film work. Although the laughs and appealing spirit of “Bridesmaids” was missing in “The Heat,” he’s quickly rebounded with “Spy,” a ferociously funny Melissa McCarthy star vehicle.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy) once dreamed of life as a CIA field agent. She imagined action, romance and intrigue. Instead of trotting the globe and saving the world, Susan performs her heroics behind a desk. The CIA analyst is super-spy Bradley Fine’s (Jude Law) eyes and ears. When the CIA’s top agents’ identities are exposed, though, Susan gets her chance to get out into the field. But putting the fate of the world into her hands doesn’t sit well with everybody – most notably, Rick Ford (Jason Statham), a spy who doesn’t believe he has any weaknesses. Ford and Cooper butt heads as she tracks down Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who plans on selling a miniature nuclear weapon to the highest bidder.

As expected, Feig’s script is sharp. Never does “Spy” become parody or satire. The writer/director manages to poke fun at some genre conventions – Ford is James Bond and Jason Bourne combined, with some steroids thrown in for good measure – but never to the point where they overwhelm the emotional core and broad stakes of the film. Yes, “Spy” is a comedy, but Feig makes the action scenes have a real sense of danger. The violence is surprisingly and often comically brutal. Feig not only takes advantage of the R-rating in the language department, but also with bloodshed.

Anyone worried about how the director is going to fare with the upcoming “Ghostbusters” movie, worry no more. Feig actually has some real action chops as a filmmaker: there’s almost always a clear sense of geography in the action scenes; the set pieces move plot and character forward; and even when “Spy” gets bloody, there’s still tonally appropriate laughs. Even after seeing someone’s throat melt, Feig interjects a terrific joke that doesn’t undo the horror of that sight.

In many ways, Feig has grown as a filmmaker. He’s a very clever storyteller, but he’s not without his indulgences. Like “The Heat” and, to a lesser extent, “Bridesmaids”, “Spy” is bloated. The two-hour film has about 100 minutes of plot. Towards the big climax, the film becomes a tad exhausting. There’s a redundant twist that takes up more time than it should, jokes go on longer than they need to, and even the post-credits scene doesn’t know when to stop. Less is more, as shown by the film’s finest jokes.

Melissa McCarthy is terrific. She makes Susan an easy character to root for, and Feig gives her a genuine arc. Susan’s big emotional moment in the third act isn’t careless or just thrown in there, as is the case with most comedies. Her journey was carefully considered, making her funnier and more human. The real stars of the show, though, are Rose Byrne and, playing a flirty Italian spy, Peter Serafinowicz. Jason Statham is very funny, but almost too prominent at times, while Serafinowicz is used perfectly in small doses. Not a single line that comes out of his or Byrne’s mouth falls flat.

“Spy” rarely goes for an easy joke; there are so many wonderful setups and payoffs. On top of that, hardly any gags come from McCarthy falling down. There’s nothing lazy about “Spy.” Despite the bloat, Paul Feig’s latest is a smart and often heartfelt comedy.