As someone who had to push past Hollywood’s narrow standards of existence, much less beauty, Melissa McCarthy has built a big-screen career out of characters whom others foolishly underestimate. Her “Bridesmaids” character might be brash and inappropriate, but she’s got high-level nuclear security clearance, while her detective in “The Heat” was both a damn good cop and a sexual dynamo with many heartbroken men in her wake.
“Spy,” her latest team-up with director Paul Feig (who also wrote the script), takes the actress’ particular set of skills to its broadest canvas yet, allowing her to globe-trot from Paris to Rome to Budapest as CIA agent Susan Cooper, who surprises not just those around her but also herself with her adeptness in the field.
Susan, a ten-year vet at the agency, has been content to languish in the rodent-infested basement at Langley, where she’s been the eyes and ears of Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a suave super-spy who blithely shoots and quips his way through dangerous situations only thanks to Susan’s via-satellite guidance.
When arms dealer Rayna (a delectably bitchy Rose Byrne) reveals she knows the identities of all the CIA’s top agents in the field, only the unknown Susan can track down the woman who’s intent on selling a rogue nuke to the nefarious DeLuca (Bobby Cannavale). But despite her skill with a headset and a computer screen, Susan gets no respect at the office; her deadpan boss (Allison Janney) gives her a series of frumpy undercover identities (“I look like someone’s homophobic aunt,” laments Susan), and even her cool spy gadgets are disguised to look like stool softener, toe-fungus spray and hemorrhoid wipes.
Susan’s orders are to track and report at a distance, but of course she winds up getting up close and personal with Rayna. Their relationship consists of them taking turns being nastily dismissive of each other, and McCarthy and Byrne’s scenes together are cruelly hilarious, with the kind of no-holds-barred insult humor that makes you instinctively drop your jaw and cover your mouth.
What Feig does so well here is to take the spy story just seriously enough to keep us engaged (although he could probably have put Susan onto the playing field five or ten minutes earlier) while also giving McCarthy a number of sharp comic foils. Besides Byrne and Janney, she gets to play off Jason Statham (as a fellow spy who refuses to take her seriously — to Susan’s credit, she never backs down from his bullying), Miranda Hart (the “Call the Midwife” star plays one of Susan’s basement buddies), and Peter Serafinowicz (as a handsy Italian ally).
Freed from the PG-13 shackles of most straightforward spy movies, “Spy” actually offers up more blood and vivid violence than the genre it’s tweaking, but never enough to get in the way of the comedy. If anything, the occasional mayhem reminds us of the danger Susan’s putting herself in while also underscoring how cartoony many contemporary espionage dramas have become.
“Spy” would be a standout if only for its ability to keep me laughing while also keeping me from figuring out who was really double-crossing whom. Add to that this extraordinary ensemble of actors (who knew Jason Statham could be this funny?), and you’ve got another memorable offering from McCarthy and Feig. Underestimate them at your peril.