Monday, June 8, 2015

Spy (***)

Written and Directed by Paul Feig


After I saw Welcome To Me, I was impressed by Kristen Wiig's continued efforts to carve out a filmography within quirky independent films, as opposed to taking advantage of the commercial appeal of her breakout hit Bridesmaids. On this very blog, I mentioned how Wiig could have easily cashed in with more mainstream projects like her Bridesmaids co-star Melissa McCarthy (both actresses were nominated for Oscars for Bridesmaids - McCarthy for Best Supporting Actress; Wiig for co-writing the screenplay). After seeing McCarthy's latest star turn, Spy, I find myself pleased with the two, differing approaches these comedic performers have chosen. Wiig's appeal goes hand in hand with her self-molded image as an oddity, she likes playing the emotional house of cards. McCarthy has a much broader appeal. She can be funny on screen in so many different ways, it's almost intimidating. She's transformed herself into a legit movie star, and one who has a deft understanding on how to play each scene to her advantage. Almost anyone in a scene with her can come off funny just by her presence, and yet, she's almost always the true star of any scene she happens to be in. Spy allows her to both show off her whirlwind improvisational abilities and perform the physical comedy she's notorious for. It's a true star vehicle and one that might show that America is ready for something new in the movies.

Spy is directed by Paul Feig, the man who also directed Bridesmaids, as well as the McCarthy-Sandra Bullock buddy cop comedy The Heat. Feig is a veteran director in television (the guy did an episode of Mad Men in its first season if you want to understand his range), but is still relatively fresh as a feature filmmaker. This feels like the weakest of what he has to offer. The script (which he wrote) is a collection of easy sight gags and unnecessary graphic violence; it's hard to watch certain moments and not think that Feig is smarter than this. What isn't up for debate his ability to take advantage of the best McCarthy has to offer. In Spy, McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who's bound to a basement cubicle feeding intel into the ear of prized field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Fine is a handsome James Bond wannabe who likes to take risks and is usually saved by the research of his basement partner, Cooper. When Fine tracks down the Bulgarian crime boss who is the only man who knows the whereabouts of a nuclear weapon, he accidentally sneezes and shoots the crime boss in the head, killing him instantly. It's the first of many acts of gruesome violence which is played off as innocent fun. A simple mistake, nothing Bradley Fine and Susan Cooper can't handle.

When the CIA learns that the Bulgarian's daughter, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), not only knows the location of the nuke, but also has the identities of all of the CIA's field agents, the agency's chief director Elaine Crocker (the always-dependable Allison Janney) is put in a bit of a pickle. How is she going to be able to penetrate Rayna's operation when all the identities of her agents have been compromised? Susan steps up to the plate, and travels to Paris to retrieve intel - since she's never been in the field, her physical appearance is unknown to Boyanov, so with a new identity she will be able to slide in, undetected. Elaine is hesitant to send in an agent with no experience, but sees it as her only option and decides to grant Susan her wish. This does not sit well with super-machismo agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who still feels he's the best man for the job despite the security breach. Statham is good here in a very limited role. Limited both in terms of time on screen and just basic character depth, but Statham gets the beats perfectly, making perfect fun of his tough guy movie persona while also supplying McCarthy with a much-needed foil in certain scenes. A whole movie of Rick Ford would be unbearable, but the small doses that we get here is near perfect.

Crocker sends Susan off to Paris with a rather unflattering new identity - equipped with several stealth weapons disguised as hemorrhoid wipes and anti-fungal cream - and is given her best agency friend, Nancy (Miranda Hart), as a basement ear piece analyst. Nancy and Susan are met with immediate problems upon the beginning of their mission. The Paris hotel Susan stays at is in a seedier part of the neighborhood (to put it nicely), and she quickly learns that Rick Ford has followed her, threatening to put the whole operation in danger. Susan's mission is strictly track-and-report, but as opportunity presents itself to get close to Rayna, she quickly takes advantage of it. It quickly becomes clear that Susan's cunning is more advanced than we figured, her ability to improvise in the field and in dangerous situations saves her life multiple times. When her cover is nearly blown in the presence of Rayna, Susan quickly passes herself off as an undercover bodyguard hired by Rayna's dead father. Susan quickly transitions from a mousy companion to a hard-talking, tough-love advisor which provides the film with some of it's best laughs. With her new position in Rayna's entourage, communication with CIA ceases, so they send in another agent, Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz), a super-horny, fast-driving Italian who does little for Susan outside of blatantly hitting on her.

The jokes in this film are top-notch, even if Feig does get a little too distracted at times with stunt work and blood squibs. The film's comfort level with its own violence felt a bit disturbing at times, considering that there's a scene where a man drinks poison that literally makes his throat melt into the back of his neck. It's meant to create absurdity, but I'm not sure it totally works here. Violence like this works in a satirical sense in films like Verhoeven's Robocop or Tarantino's Kill Bill, because in those films the violence is the point. Spy is meant to be a broad comedy, its violence feels like an easy shock, or - even more hauntingly - easy laughs. Last year's The Interview had the same problem. I'm just not sure seeing someone die a horrible, disgusting death is that funny, but perhaps I'm quickly becoming the minority in that viewpoint. It's more disappointing because it distracts from what actually is funny about the movie. Watching McCarthy verbally lash out at those around her is one of the most entertaining things that today's movies have to offer. She's like a one-woman episode of Veep on steroids. McCarthy is easy to root for because she doesn't look like most movie stars, but Feig is smart to never take her appearance and make it a joke. Physicality is part of McCarthy's act, but her body never is.

Byrne is also hilarious here, playing acidic vanity. Her recent career turn as a comedic actress agrees with her, she's like the female Rob Lowe. She has an understanding of her beauty and how it can get good laughs. Jude Law is doing something quite similar here, though most of what's funny about Fine is how naive he is about his own stupidity. The same can be said of Statham's performance of Ford. In Spy, it's the male characters who are the ones we are laughing at, and hardly ever laughing with. But the entire cast is working on an incredible wave length. As the awkward, British BFF, Miranda Hart gets a ton of laughs. It's her first major appearance in a Hollywood film (she's a stickler in several English TV shows and movies), but if people are smart, it won't be her last. Here, Hart shows a mastery of timing, playing wonderfully off of the abrasive McCarthy with great grace. Serafinowicz's one-note character of Aldo should get old quickly, but Serafinowicz astutely finds new ways to make the obscene character funny. His sexual desperation never really crosses a line, and the performance always manages to find a middle ground which seems charming.

But this is McCarthy's star vehicle. It's the second film she's been allowed to headline by herself after last year's Tammy. I never saw that film, nor have I seen The Heat, but both of those films made surprising amounts of money and Spy seems to be following in their footsteps. This is not a great film, but it is a great showcase. It's a solid adult comedy with smart writing and above average filmmaking. If we're lucky, it won't produce several lackluster sequels. It is a confirmation of McCarthy's moviestar status. There are few performers left who can guarantee a hit based solely on their presence, but she has shown that she may be in this select company with her last few films. I found myself quite enjoying Spy despite myself. It's violence unnerved me and its reliance on it felt simply in bad taste, but it all felt righted by McCarthy's performance. There hasn't been a superstar performance that more effected a mediocre movie since last year when  Tom Cruise made Edge of Tomorrow one of the best films of 2014. Edge of Tomorrow was a flop though, while Spy will not be. We're in a world where Melissa McCarthy is a bigger box office draw than Tom Cruise, and there's something very comforting about that.

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