When she’s on her game, Melissa McCarthy is one of the funniest people on the planet. A seasoned improv veteran, her extemporaneous comedy instincts are off the charts—check out the gag reel from Bridesmaids for instant evidence.
But so far, McCarthy’s headlining roles in feature films haven’t played out so great. Her buddy-cop adventure The Heat, with Sandra Bullock, felt like a missed opportunity. And last year’s anti-comedy Tammy was a total mess.
So I’m pleased to report that the new comedy Spy finally provides McCarthy with a pitch she can hit. Written and directed by Bridesmaids conspirator Paul Feig, it’s a clever spy-movie spoof that successfully flips the script on the genre by giving us a strong female hero, villain and sidekick.
McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA analyst turned semi-reluctant field agent. It’s the Jack Ryan story played for laughs. Our villain is terrorist Rayna Boyanov, portrayed by the reliable Rose Byrne. In the sidekick role is British comic Miranda Hart, perfectly cast.
The espionage plot is thin and goofy, but that’s entirely on purpose. The story is only there to structure the gags and set pieces. McCarthy assumes a series of undercover personas as the action moves from Paris to Rome to Budapest. Jude Law joins in as the suave 007 type, and Jason Statham steals all his scenes as a meathead agent gone rogue.
McCarthy is the kind of overpowering comic performer who can make you laugh even when you really don’t want to. Spy is filled with lowbrow body-function jokes of the sort that usually make my eyes glaze over, but McCarthy can sell pretty much anything. About halfway through, she delivers one of her patented profane rants—introducing her fists as Cagney and Lacey—and I literally couldn’t stop laughing. It’s like being tickled, actually. It’s essentially an act of aggression.
In its best scenes, Spy is very funny indeed. But there are too many misfires for the comedy to really soar. I estimate about 65 percent of the jokes work. Luckily, Feig is smart enough to maintain a fast pace. When a moment doesn’t land, there’s no need to worry, because you know that three more gags are coming in fast.