In “Spy,” a Fine Supporting Team Propels Agent Melissa McCarthy to 00-Comedy

[NOTE: I reviewed this on the radio on June 5, along with Entourage” and “San Andreas.” The reviews start at 38min. on the podcast of the show.]

Spy - June 5

Spy (Paul Feig, 2015)

How do you solve a problem like Melissa? She’s not exactly a conventional leading lady, and yet ever since Bridesmaids – for which she was nominated for an Oscar, after a long career in television on such shows as “Gilmore Girls” and “Mike & Molly” – she’s been on something of a roll. How long can it last? In films like The Heat and Tammy, she has continued with the vulgar shtick that made her famous, and it’s getting (for this guy, anyway) old, and fast. But then, in the recent St. Vincent, she showed that she was capable of delivering a real – yet still funny – performance (albeit in a supporting role, once more). Now, in Spy (from Paul Feig, who directed both Bridesmaids and The Heat), she lands in a nice middle ground between the grotesquerie of her first big success and the restraint of her last film, and is delightful as the lead, Susan Cooper, a female support analyst, working for the CIA, who gets her big break when the agency’s top spy goes missing.

Behind every great man is a great woman, they used to say. In the opening of Spy, we see this outdated maxim played out in literal terms. Jude Law (Black Sea) – bedecked in quite a toupee – plays 007 look-a-like Bradley Fine. He’s on a mission in a Balkan country, breaking into a compound filled with gunmen. Communicating with Fine via earpiece is McCarthy’s Cooper who, thanks to (amazingly improbable) satellite imagery, sees all of his surroundings, and so directs him on his every move, letting him know who and what is beyond which door. That Fine completes his mission (sort of) and escapes alive is due only to Cooper’s brilliance. He knows it – and is duly grateful, if arrogant – but Cooper is too insecure and smitten with him to realize that she truly completes him. But then, shortly after beginning a new case, Fine vanishes, presumed dead, and the CIA must send an agent without a known profile out into the field. Of course, the only one who qualifies is Cooper, and so begins our fish-out-of-water/fish-discovers-she’s-a-damn-competent-amphibian comedy-action-adventure tale.

Fans of both McCarthy and James Bond films should love it. And with a fine supporting cast that includes Rose Byrne (Annie), Jason Statham (The Transporter), Bobby Cannavale (Blue Jasmine) and Allison Janney (“The West Wing“) – not to mention British comedienne Miranda Hart (Miranda“), largely unknown in the States – there is plenty of talent on the screen beyond McCarthy, giving as good as they get. Devoid of much of McCarthy’s trademark excess, the movie – though unquestionably dumb, dumb, dumb – offers plenty of jokes that hit their mark, and fits nicely into the recent string of big movies featuring strong central female protagonists (such as Mad Max: Fury Road and Pitch Perfect 2). I saw the film at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, and laughed so hard that my belly ached. Go see it.