"Here's what we do. I go into the Face Off Machine, get a whole new face."
In comedy, all the jokes, swear words, pratfalls, and crazy make-em-ups in the world are not a suitable replacement for character. The sad state of affairs in our world is that most comedy directors do not realize this. They spend all their time either coming up with twelve different jokes where one would suffice, or they pack the frame with people getting hit in the nuts or replicating a scene from another film in hopes of squeezing a cheap, familiar laugh out of an audience. Thank goodness for Paul Feig. He is like a beacon, shining in a dark world where comedy spends no time investing in its characters and hopes that the crazy situations it puts them in is enough to carry the film. It's not. It never has been and it never will be. Feig's former Freaks & Geeks creative partner Judd Apatow has also fallen victim to this plague by essentially taking the "You know how I know you're gay?" scene from The 40 Year Old Virgin and turning it into his entire comedy aesthetic.
Thankfully Feig is smart enough to know that character is the foundation upon which all great comedy is based and that action set-pieces, pratfalls, improvisation, and bad words should serve to bolster those characters, not undermine them at every turn. Feig's latest creation, Spy, is also his first solo comedy script, and it's pretty much a home run. It gets a tad bloated, bringing up far too many twists and turns that all need resolutions, but at least he has the wherewithal to wrap up everything and deliver a solid, character based comedy that feels as grounded and real as its aesthetic is outlandish and zany. In other words, the bulk of people going to see a funny action spy caper will be thoroughly satisfied because not only are they getting that, they're also secretly being handed a brilliantly realized batch of characters worth giving a damn about.
In what is arguably her best starring role to date, Melissa McCarthy plays Susan, a CIA analyst who serves as the eyes and ears of Bradley Fine (Jude Law), the suave and debonair spy attempting to crack the case of a missing nuclear warhead. When Fine is killed and the identities of all CIA field operatives are compromised by Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), a villain bent on continuing her dead father's mission of selling the warhead to the highest bidder, the CIA is forced to take drastic action. Against the protestations of loose cannon spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham), the head of the agency (Allison Janney) decides to send Susan to Paris on a recon mission to gather information about Boyanov's plan to sell the warhead. Ford goes rogue, and Susan soon finds herself holding her own and making her way into Boyanov's inner circle with the goal finding the warhead before it is sold.
What makes Spy work so brilliantly is that it's not some straight spoof of the spy genre like Austin Powers. The film has enough subversive riffs on the tropes of the genre without relying on them to carry all of the comedy. It also wisely sets McCarthy up as somewhat of a secret bad-ass, and doesn't rely on jokes made at her expense to provide the laughs. There's plenty of that fish out of water comedy in the film, but the film is not beholden to it in any way. There are also several sublimely funny bits of physical comedy, none of which rely on simply having McCarthy fall on her ass for the laugh. In fact, Feig has actually learned enough from his previous female script collaborators, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo on Bridesmaids and Katie Dippold on The Heat, to craft a brilliant piece of feminist comedy. The often outrageously macho behavior by most of the male characters in the film, Statham in particular, works spectacularly well as a deep comedy vein which can be mined over and over.
In fact, virtually every male in the cast is superfluous to the plot in the same way that Indiana Jones was superfluous to the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's not to say that they don't add anything to the story, but nearly every turn in the film's plot is directly affected by the actions of a woman, whether a hero or a villain. That's kind of a mind-blowing thing to say about an action comedy, but it's sorely needed in this day and age. The men in the film are all outstanding, particularly Peter Serafinowicz as a handsy Italian liaison for McCarthy, but this is a film that adheres to the first law of Beyoncé: Who run this mother? Girls. Girls. It's all the more astonishing that it comes in a studio film, directed by a man, and co-starring perhaps the very definition of machismo in Jason Statham. The vast majority of men won't know what hit them.
McCarthy is as radiant a star as there is in modern films, and she continues to demonstrate her growth as an actress with every role. In fact, it was especially nice in this film to see that she is as tired of the jokes made at her expense as everyone else is, almost forcing them to fade into the background by the end. As her CIA chum, Miranda Hart is also fantastic, in much the same way that McCarthy was in Bridesmaids several years ago, stealing scenes without even trying. Byrne is also terrific as a spoiled rich girl who knows nothing outside of how to get her own way. They are a smart and effective triad on which the film is built, and they rise to the occasion admirably. Throw in another scene stealing performance by Allison Janney, and virtually everything about the core women in this film is perfect.
The men are no slouches either, with Statham and Serafinowicz stealing their scenes. Statham fans will be beside themselves to see how much fun Statham has poking fun at his own image, and hopefully this film will send Serafinowicz into the stratosphere where he and his considerable comedic talents belong. Behind the camera, Feig does well with the action sequences, but of course shines in the dialogue and character heavy scenes. As I mentioned earlier, the film does suffer from a bit of bloat in the third act, as the comedy takes a backseat to wrapping up the plot, but thankfully it's not enough to derail the whole effort. The sweet spot for comedy has always been 90 minutes, and at 120, this feels its length, but I wouldn't sacrifice a single character building moment just to cut down that running time.
Spy is perhaps the first great 21st century action comedy, allowing women their chance in the spotlight without sacrificing anything that makes female centric films great. It just takes those same tenets and puts them smack dab in the middle of a well paced, well shot action film. It's all the more exciting that this is Feig's third film in a row to really give women some great, meaningful things to do on film, and he has yet to succumb to the baser urges of so many of his contemporaries. This is a smart, well crafted film that will satisfy the urges of comedy fans and action fans, and one which proves rather conclusively that anyone not taking time in the script writing process to give their female characters something interesting to do, just isn't trying.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]