Movie Review: Spy (2015)
I like the running gag anyway.
Most genre spoofs occur when Hollywood takes someone who looks and acts like us (a schlub) and places them in an exciting genre movie (western, action-adventure, spy thriller). The laughs come when the schlub tries to live up to the genre and falls flat, while the catharsis comes when the schlub becoming the wish-fulfillment fantasy figure in the end. The genre may be mocked but it ultimately wins. Wish-fulfillment fantasy wins. We want us on the screen but no we don’t. See, among recent movies, “The Other Guys,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “The World’s End,” “The LEGO Movie,” and “21/22 Jump Street.”
Paul Feig’s “Spy,” starring Melissa McCarthy, is another spoof—this time, obviously, of James Bond-type spy thrillers—but with a feminist twist.
Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is an assistant to superspy and superhunk Bradley Fine (Jude Law), of whom she’s enamored, quietly and painfully, even as she expertly guides him—via earpiece, cameras and high-tech CIA equipment—through missions. Then she watches him die at the hands of Raina Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who has a wayward nuke she’s willing to sell to the highest bidder. Or willing to sell to the person who will sell to the highest bidder. Or something.
Anyway, with Fine dead, Susan finally gets the gumption to ask her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney), for a field assignment to gather intel on Boyanov and get revenge for Fine. She travels to all the exotic locales, Paris, Rome, and Budapest, trailed, or preceded, by Rick Ford (Jason Statham), a CIA agent who went rogue after he didn’t get the assignment. Since he looks and acts like Jason Statham, we assume he’s super-competent, but he’s not. He’s a loud, tough-talking doofus. It’s Susan who’s super-competent. She’s smarter, tougher, quicker-minded and a better fighter than almost everyone around her. She just never got to display it because, you know, women in the workplace.
Susan, in other words, merely looks like us, but acts, almost from the beginning, like the hero. So where’s the spoof? In the way she tries to live up to the genre.
Spies are glamorous. They are given cool clothes and cool cars and cool devices with which to take out the bad guys. Susan is obviously not glamorous, but she thinks the assignment will help. Except she’s given dowdy clothes and dowdier identities (cat lady, etc.), while her Q-like weapons are hidden, not in cigarettes or sports cars, but stool softener packages, foot fungal sprays and rape whistles. Her disappointment each time is palpable. It’s a good running gag.
Overall, I was a bit disappointed—not least because “Spy” opened the Seattle International Film Festival, a spot usually reserved for small prestige pictures—but I was surprised by a couple of things.
I was taken aback that a wayward nuke that may get into the hands of al Qaeda was at the centerpiece of a comedy. That felt risky. Every time it was brought up, I didn’t exactly feel like laughing.
The other thing that surprised me was how uncomfortable I felt in the end. Bradley Fine, it turns out, isn’t dead but playing the double-agent game to get the nuke to save the world. And while Susan is busy saving the world, he overhears how much he means to her. In the end, he confronts her with this. He seems to soften, to become interested in her, and you think the movie is going to go in that direction. It doesn’t. She dismisses his overtures and ends the movie walking off with her friend, and the woman in her earpiece, the gangly Nancy (a very funny Miranda Hart). Cue credits.
But in that moment when there was just a chance that Jude Law and Melissa McCarthy would wind up together? I felt horribly uncomfortable.
Obviously because of the way she looks. And because in our society, women who look like her don’t wind up with men who look like him. The reverse is sometimes true, particularly on TV sitcoms (see Jim Belushi/Courtney Thorne-Smith), or if the schlubby man in question is rich or famous or both (Paul Allen/Laura Harring). But rarely do we get the hot man/dumpy woman dynamic. Men are just too shallow when it comes to looks, while women are too shallow when it comes to works.
But—to drill down a bit—was I uncomfortable with this potential romance because it felt false or because I found it unappetizing?
Sadly, I think more toward the latter. And the more I thought about it, the more I kept flashing on Dustin Hoffman’s great epiphany during the making of “Tootsie”: how he wanted his character, Dorothy Michaels, to be better-looking, and how it wasn’t going to happen. He realized that he (Dorothy) was the type of woman that he (Dustin) would never talk to at a party. Because she didn’t fit his notion of female beauty. And what a loss that was.
Is this more of that? I think it is. An odd, deep revelation to carry with me from a spy spoof.