Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon, whether in a bar or a car or lands afar, look like they’re enjoying themselves in the buddy action romp “The Spy Who Dumped Me.”
This kind of co-star coziness, however, can be a 50/50 proposition for an audience. Are the actors flaunting their frolic at the expense of entertainment cohesion? Is it a home movie writ large? Or does the onscreen fun invite along summer moviegoers eager to be whisked away?
The answer with director and co-writer Susanna Fogel’s girls-on-the-run misadventure is a decided… it depends. As in, from scene to scene, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” either lands the appropriately silly tone of freewheeling camaraderie or feels like a lot of money and time haphazardly spent.
The world as it exists definitely needs more movies with engaging women like Kunis and McKinnon showing the boys a thing or two about pals-in-peril laughs and thrills. The Melissa McCarthy vehicle “Spy” was a masterful example of how brilliantly funny this timeworn genre can get when women are front and center — which unfortunately leaves “Spy Who Dumped Me” in the energetic but spotty B-team camp. (And the less said about “Snatched,” the better.)
The idea isn’t a bad one: Combine the low-key, talky, everyday-problems comic vibe of Fogel’s 2014 indie charmer “Life Partners” — about female besties reaching a saturation point when romantic fulfillment is on the line — with the high-stakes derring-do of an action comedy. And Fogel leans into that dichotomy hard, and right away.
Underachieving smart gal Audrey (Kunis) celebrates a dreary 30th birthday at a Los Angeles bar with her closest chum Morgan (McKinnon), an outgoing kook; meanwhile, Audrey’s boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) — who just broke up with her via text — is violently evading pursuers in an open-air market in Vilnius, Lithuania. As cross-cutting energies go (vigorously choreographed, explosive mayhem alongside downbeat, snarky, claustrophobic girltime), it’s an admittedly offbeat tack, and one that takes some getting used to.
After an alcohol-fueled night of burning some of Drew’s belongings, Audrey finds him at her doorstep (really, the side window), with killers on his trail and a pair of bickering international intelligence operatives named Sebastian (Sam Heughan, “Outlander”) and Duffer (Hasan Minhaj) desperate to reach him. His cover blown, Drew entrusts Audrey with a “package” to be delivered to a contact in Vienna. The idea of following through on potentially dangerous international intrigue triggers the overthinking Audrey’s self-doubt, which only spurs impulsive, faithful Morgan to convince her that life was made for these you-might-die-but-hey-might-you-live moments.
And it’s in that push-and-pull between Kunis’s neurotic practicality and McKinnon’s devilish confidence where “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is at its most enjoyable, hopping from Vienna to Prague to Paris to Berlin. Especially when the Emmy-winning “Saturday Night Live” goddess has freer reign, whether indulging an I-want-to-spy-too feminist crush — upon discovering a woman (Gillian Anderson in haughty British mode) is in charge of male agents — or recklessly inserting herself into a Cirque du Soleil act.
It’s part of McKinnon’s squirrelly-eyed charm, after all, that as nutty as the words usually are coming out of that vixenish contralto purr, she’s magnetically convincing as the friend with whom you’d gladly run from gunfire, mug Aussie girl-backpackers for their passports, and fend off a compact, icy Eastern European gymnast-assassin (a chilling Ivanna Sakhno) who doesn’t respond to sisterhood empathy. Not every eccentric tweak of hers lands, but it’s a wonderful feeling knowing McKinnon sees potential for humor every time the camera’s on her, even for a reaction shot shoved into an action sequence.
Kunis, in the straight-woman role, makes do with the less flashy role, and she’s also saddled with resolving the ho-hum relationship storyline, which is complicated by Audrey’s feelings for the sensitive Sebastian, who becomes an ally to the women. (Heughan’s needs are simple: Look capable and pretty.)
The stars are the only twosome that matters, though, and in a refreshing change of pace, there’s no manufactured rift for Audrey and Morgan to overcome. Fogel would rather celebrate the humor in a deep friendship, as in a funny, increasingly embarrassing back-and-forth under captured duress that’s meant to prove who knows the other better.
The fights, chases and explosions are serviceably handled, too, with just enough bone-crunching and bloodletting to make Kunis’s and McKinnon’s transformation from screaming bystanders to save-the-planet badasses feel buddy-movie believable. But nothing comedy-wise beats a hilariously misguided attempt to hijack an aged couple’s fancy car, only to discover a stick shift, which neither character knows how to operate. As the flummoxed pair talk over each other, the car putters to a stop, the owners walking alongside it the whole time.
It’s a bit worthy of Lucy and Ethel. And while, overall, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is no classic in that sense, one sees appealing glimmers of a larger female-buddy-comedy world ready to be explored.