If you’ve been out of the country for a month as I have, you may not have seen Spy yet, and if that’s the case, let me take this opportunity to recommend it. With Jurassic Park and Age of Ultron having already garnered around half a billion dollars each at the box office, Hollywood’s summer blockbuster season of nonstop action and computer-generated special effects is off to a very lucrative start, but if you’d like a little comedy as a change of pace, you might get a lot out of this feminist spoof of the traditional spy genre a la James Bond.
The film opens with a pop song blasting over the opening titles and credits that sounds (and looks) uncannily like Shirley Bassey’s brassy rendition of the title song over the opening credits of Goldfinger fifty years ago, and we are immediately confronted by Bradley Fine (Jude Law as a suave, deadly Bond-like hero) shooting and fighting his way through a series of bad guys without breaking a sweat or wrinkling his dinner jacket.
But this is not Bradley Fine’s story. It’s the story of Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), the CIA agent who works at a desk back in Langley and is the voice in Fine’s ear, using computer technology to warn Fine when a group of bad guys approaches him from around the next corner. Cooper, it turns out, tested well as a field agent but lacks self-confidence, and besides, Fine has convinced her they make a great “team” and doesn’t want her to give up her desk job helping him out from Langley’s rat-infested basement. The fact that she has clearly had unrequited feelings for Fine for years has helped convince Cooper that she is in the job she needs to be in.
But when Fine is apparently gunned down while seeking a stolen nuclear device, Cooper is pressed into duty as a field agent, since all of the CIA’s top agents are known to the criminals. She must go on a fact finding mission to Paris, Rome, and Budapest to track down a criminal mastermind arms dealer named Rayna (Rose Byrne, McCarthy and Feig’s Bridesmaids costar), who seeks to sell the nuclear device to a rogue terrorist organization, which plans to detonate it on U.S. soil. And, of course, hilarity ensues.
But it might not be the kind of hilarity you’d expect. The typical Hollywood scenario would have Cooper commit all kinds of silly faux pas because of her inexperience and essential incompetence and then, by sheer luck, she would emerge victorious in the end. But that’s not what happens here. Cooper is in fact a well-trained agent with a talent for the work. The company’s use of her turns out to be ridiculous, putting her in guises such as a dowdy Midwestern frump with a house full of cats, and giving her high-tech Bond-like gadgets in the form of stool softeners, hemorrhoid wipes and a Beaches watch. McCarthy must spend a good part of the movie transcending the stereotyped boxes that her superiors want to put her in until, cornered by Byrne, she must make up her own identity—a tough-talking bodyguard—which allows her more familiar screen persona to emerge and trade salty barbs with Byrne in a manner reminiscent of her character in The Heat. It is a microcosm of Hollywood’s treatment of women of McCarthy’s physical type who are not conventionally “beautiful.” The spy-thriller genre a la James Bond becomes, in McCarthy and Feig’s hands, a metaphor for the movies’ stereotyped images of machismo and conventional “femininity” that have influenced, and been influenced by, society’s own stereotypes since the beginning. In Spy, Moneypenny gets to put her considerable talents to work, and the Bond/Jude Law types are revealed finally to be attractive but manipulative users of women.
Or they can be the less sophisticated but (in the movies anyway) far more prevalent action-hero types embodied in Rick Ford (Jason Statham), a rogue agent who doesn’t believe Cooper will be able to track down the nuclear device and decides to go after it himself. Statham’s performance is a hilarious sendup of his own screen persona, and he boasts of his increasingly more absurd exploits in more and more unbelievable hyperbole. At the same time he bungles his way into Cooper’s business and nearly ruins things several times, until at one point she is forced to save him from his own incompetence before he blows up himself along with a crow of innocent bystanders.
The men in the film (Fine, Ford, and Aldo, an Italian ally played by Peter Sarafinowicz who does little but leer lasciviously at Cooper and every other woman in view) are all too self-involved to be much help in actually accomplishing the mission. Byrne, of course, is herself an anomaly—no Bond film has a memorable female villain, and if they did, she would simply be seduced by the irresistible charm of the suave hero. It’s the other women (with the notable exception of Rayna, of course) who prove the most useful to Cooper: the CIA director played by Alison Janney (who has made a niche for herself playing serious character roles despite not being the conventional Hollywood type herself), and Cooper’s fellow desk-jockey Miranda Hart (another unconventional type for Hollywood, from PBS’s Call the Midwife), who turns field agent in the end as well. In a way, this makes the film seem a bit too obvious (Women good! Men bad!) but it doesn’t come across that pat and the men seem redeemable. And it is a comedy after all—there are winners and losers, but the losers don’t suffer much.
Aside from having a pretty lame title, Spy is not as funny as, say, The Heat was, partly because Cooper is too sympathetic to laugh at much. You feel with her—particularly in an exchange late in the film when Ford scoffs at her and asks sarcastically if she thinks she can seduce a male target and you feel like asking, with her, why that is so hard to believe. The jokes are not on her, so they’ve got to be on the men. And they are, particularly the men whose world view has not yet expanded to encompass the competency of women as women, rather than as air-brushed icons.
A good three Tennysons for this one.