Melissa McCarthy became an unlikely breakout star in 2011. Then known for her CBS sitcom Mike & Molly, she crossed over into film with the Paul Feig directed/Kristen Wiig scripted Bridesmaids. A film that became a surprising smash hit both critically and commercially, the film somehow managed to transcend genre bias within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to secure both an Original Screenplay nomination, but more surprisingly, a Supporting Actress nod for McCarthy.
McCarthy is something of an oddity after all of that. Her next films would feature her in double acts alongside Jason Bateman and Sandra Bullock, but rarely did they hit. When McCarthy is able to play an actual character, she’s hilarious, but when she’s nothing but a punchline, she’s insufferable. So, it’s with much relief that I’m glad that the movie Spy allows her to better use her talents, but the actual film is a mixed bag of varying success.
With Spy, Paul Feig creates a comical, but remarkably detailed ode to the action genre. Starting off with a rock solid 30 minutes that both satirizes and celebrates classic James Bond tropes (including a charismatically humorous Jude Law), right down to a Bond style opening credits sequence, it’s obvious that Feig has a passionate understanding of what makes these films work, and the numerous ways that he can elicit jokes out of them is very endearing. The laughs are quick and often, and makes great use of a well selected cast.
However, after those first 30 minutes is when the film not so much runs out of steam, but rather sputters. Feig is a very hands-on director in the unscripted, often leaving the cameras to run for lengthy amounts of time for the actors to improvise more hilarious dialogue. The problem with that, however, is that Feig too often lets these stretch past the breaking point. At nearly two hours long, it feels padded with enough needless filler to fill an entire short film. These include moments when Jason Statham, playing a clear parody version of his film persona, begins listing the death defying stunts and extremely perilous bodily conditions he’s subjected himself to. Statham is hilarious to listen to, but these moments quickly begin losing their novelty as the film refuses to cut to the next scene, instead allowing for more tiresome banter.
In fact, it’s in these extended stretches that a hysterically evil, vain, and spoiled Rose Byrne provides some much needed balance to the overlong excess. Known primarily for her earlier dramatic work, she’s become an effortlessly reliable comedienne since her appearance in Bridesmaids. Expanding on the personality from that film, she plays such an excellent caricature of classic spy villains, painting a permanent sneer across her face and giving the role a deadpan and malicious sarcastic bite, always prepared with another barbed quip to anyone she sees as beneath her. The whole cast is actually quite engaging, from Miranda Hart’s overly excitable analyst, to Peter Serafinowicz as an overly chatty and raunchy aid to McCarthy
Even the action has a nice balance between the comedic and the tense, exhibiting a cartoonish slapstick that nevertheless understands the gravity of the situations at hand, and has a real rapid fire sense of fun to it all. Granted, as I said before, the film is a mixed bag of varying successes. It’s certainly closer to good than it is bad, and shows McCarthy taking a step in the right direction, but amidst those comparatively dull stretches, it too often stalls when it should be speeding through.
*** / *****