Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is facing a dilemma in her career, stuck behind a desk doing unglamorous back office work for ungrateful male colleagues who barely acknowledge her presence, stifled in her prospects for progression in a macho work environment, even her tough as nails female boss sees her as too soft. She has slammed straight into a glass ceiling.
These are known issues, the stuff that furrows brows on daytime TV chat shows and fills columns in newspaper and magazine employment columns. Early scenes establish both a history of gradual and insidious crushing of Cooper’s hopes and career goals, but also that she is really, really good at doing her job in a way that is not just unappreciated by the slick go-getters around her, but even by herself.
All of which looks a lot like the set up for an Office Space style comedy of nine-to-five drudgery with a female angle, except for one thing. Susan Cooper is working for the CIA. Not the real CIA, but the sort of movie fantasy version of an intelligence agency that sends out tuxedo-clad super-suave assassins to infiltrate terrorist rings operated by stylish baccarat playing Euro-trash. Basically, Susan Cooper is Midwestern Moneypenny.
When a mission goes badly awry, and the identities of the CIA’s top undercover agents are revealed, Cooper seizes the initiative and persuades her diamond hard boss (played by the always great Allison Janney) to use her in the field for a fact-finding mission despite the very vocal objections of blowhard ultra-hard agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham, his English growl gloriously present and unremarked upon).
The mission involves attempting to intercept a rogue nuke that has fallen into the exquisitely lacquered hands of Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). Nonetheless, really it is an excuse for an escalating series of comic set pieces and commendably straight (and exciting) action scenes.
Spy is often hilarious, but unlike many recent studio comedies structures its laughs into a carefully rising gradient of hilarity. The movies early comedy centres around McCarthy’s characters frustrations, low self esteem, and the condescension of her colleagues. An early highlight is a take on Q’s basement, the classic scene where the spy collects their gadgets and toys. Cooper and her own Moneypenny (her sole supportive co-worker played by Miranda Hart) marvel at the jet packs, sports cars, and flamethrowers being tested out by male agents in lethal Which? Magazine trials. However, when she is given her collection of custom made gadgets they are depressingly uncool.
There is a running gag (around which the poster campaign and trailers have revolved) of Cooper being sent undercover in a series of guises as hysterically dowdy middle aged and tragically single female stereotypes. This is funny, but one of the joys of Feig’s film and his witty (and foul mouthed) script, is that it allows McCarthy to be increasingly glamorous without irony. When her personal mission goes off-the-rails and she has to improvise, she says ‘to hell with it’ and blows the CIA expense account in a designer store. In stark contrast to some of her recent roles, the more glamorous, suave, and sexy McCarthy gets to be, the ruder and funnier she is. Leading to one particularly foul mouthed tirade involving a Cagney and Lacey metaphor which passed the Wittertainment five laugh test alone.
I went into this with fairly low expectations. While I think Bridesmaids is a fantastic comedy, I found Feig’s follow up action comedy The Heat pretty limp. One of the most disappointing aspects of The Heat in comparison to the best seventies and eighties action comedies, was that the action sections felt like outtakes from TJ Hooker (ie, cheap and unexciting). Well Feig has clearly been taking action direction lessons and has equipped himself with a crack stunt team led by stunt co-ordinator Henry Kingi Jr. and fight coordinator Walter Garcia. Spy is hilarious for sure, but it also works very well as a straight up action film and will please Bond fans who find the Craig era a little too serious and long for the more louche Moore era. Special mention also to McCarthy’s stunt double Stacey Howell-Brown who does great work, Feig’s take on the classic knife fight in a kitchen is another highlight of the movie.
What is really refreshing about Spy is that it feels like an action film made for women to enjoy in a way most female fronted action films just don’t. A specific example: it’s common in an action movie to hear men in the audience wincing when someone gets whacked in the nads (happens a lot to Arnie). I always feel the female audience is a bit left out of this. However, Spy has a moment of female anatomy specific violence that had the women around me audibly gasping. The men in the movie are largely supporting the female performers, although Statham’s hardcore idiot and a priapic Italian agent played by Peter Serafinowicz are lots of fun.
Rose Byrne is terrific as the villain, an absolutely awful nouveau riche snob who continually forgets her henchmen’s names and is always dressed in the hight of fashion (“you look like a perverted dolphin trainer” Cooper remarks on one outfit). Miranda Hart essentially plays Miranda, and UK audiences may feel a little overfamiliar with some of the material she is given, but there is a terrific and unexpected pay-off late in the movie I won’t spoil (although everyone else is happy to). However, this is Melissa McCarthy’s movie, and a great showcase for her as a comedy star.
McCarthy is the latest actress to show up the notion women can’t be action stars as the stupidity it is (and the notion women aren’t funny. But we recognise that as nonsense already I hope).