I missed about 20 percent of the dialogue in Paul Fieg’s “Spy” because the laughter in the audience was so loud and frequent that it drowned out many of the next punchlines. I didn’t much care, though. I was laughing too. How could I not? Fieg is the director of “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat.” He’s generous with his comedy: laughs come from all directions and all crevices, which, in this film, also contain bats and mice.
The vermin infest the CIA bunker that serves as the work space for analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy). Cooper acts as the eyes and ears for Bondian buffoon Bradley Fine (a pitch-perfect Jude Law). She tells him where the bad guys come from, when to shoot, and where to make his getaway. She’s good at her job. She’s also clearly in love with Fine, though he sees only a goofy assistant when he looks at her.
It’s not just Fine; from her agency director (Allison Janney) to field agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who refers to her as Mrs. Clause (among other insults), no one expects much of her. But when Fine is presumed killed at the hands of a ruthless Bulgarian heiress (Rose Byrne), Cooper is jettisoned out into the field and is finally given the chance to prove all the naysayers wrong.
Boy does she ever, in more ways than one. We all know that McCarthy is one of the funniest people in the movies today, but we weren’t too sure if the movies knew that. Ever since winning an Oscar nomination for “Bridesmaids,” in a role that had her wielding a fierce potty mouth and using a sink like a potty, movies like “Tammy” and “Identity Thief” seemed more comfortable using her as the joke rather than letting her tell one. McCarthy worked the material like a true sport, but you began to feel a bit embarrassed for her.
In those films, the filmmakers essentially defecated on McCarthy and expected her to swim in it. Feig, who also unleashed her opposite Sandra Bullock in 2013’s “The Heat,” provides in “Spy” her best role to date, one that plays on her proven fluency with four-letter words and her outsized personality, but also gives her a real character to play. When Cooper is humiliated or insulted, she knows it and is none too pleased. In one instance, she is given anti-poison capsules disguised as laxatives and chloroform-tinged hemorrhoid wipes. You’ll recognize her character in anyone who’s felt ignored or demeaned in a workforce, and you’ll cheer her on as she shows her peers what’s what.
“Spy” is the second movie this year to send-up the spy-thriller genre. It joins Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” But whereas Fieg’s film gives James Bond and his ilk a good spoofing (complete with stylish opening credits), Vaughn simply gave the sub-genre a good spanking, enough to draw blood. Violence makes Vaughn as giddy as a schoolgirl, though in “Kingsman” he has little time for women.
Fieg’s film is high on the women here; not just McCarthy, but also Byrne, whose Blond-Girl, Bond-Villain conflation is the funniest thing she’s ever done, icy snobbery dished out with a bemused sneer. Janney lands her deadpan lines with a drone’s accuracy, while British comic Miranda Hart delights as Cooper’s best friend Nancy. These women have all established themselves as master fencers in comedy, jabbing, parrying and lunging with skill and aplomb. It becomes a thrill just anticipating how and where the jokes will land (thankfully, McCarthy’s weight is never a victim).
One of “Spy’s” secret weapons of jest is Statham. Throughout the film, Ford boasts about his exploits as a spy (defibrillating himself, becoming immune to all poisons by trying them), which sound like story ideas for Jason Statham movies. It’s all such a ridiculous yet savvy skewering of Statham’s ultra-macho movie persona that you find yourself hoping Statham sticks with comedy for a change.
It speaks to Fieg’s approach that he allows for all his players to bring the funny. It leaves little space in the movie for when you’re not laughing. Every actor is brilliantly used and never outstays their welcome, not the least of all McCarthy, who positively glows in each scene, even when her character is given a mortifying disguise (one of which she likens to a homophobic grandma). And when her character is given a chance to strut into an opulent party with a dazzling dress and smile to match, you can practically hear McCarthy saying, now this is more like it!
Some viewers may see Coopers heroic, bold, butt-kicking femininity as another side-eye to a still tiresomely sexist Hollywood, and in a way how is it not? But Fieg’s past films have already gone there. He has no time for those who would rather another “Hangover” movie than a movie like “Spy.” He didn’t make this movie for them. He made it for McCarthy, and she rewards him with gold.