Paul Feig is a master of his craft. His craft: making foul-mouthed, absurdly-plotted, borderline-spoof comedy films about women empowerment without actually talking about women empowerment. Feig has been consistently taking up, dismantling and putting back together with child-like glee different genres, by placing strong female characters at their center.
He did it with the boisterous wedding comedy Bridesmaids. He then did it, somewhat less successfully but still entertainingly, with the buddy-cop comedy The Heat. This week’s Spy once again finds him at the top of his game, taking on another genre that has historically had no place for women: spy thrillers.
Spy follows Melissa McCarthy, a permanent fixture in Feig films,awho has to abandon her desk job at the CIA and go out into the field as an agent to stop the exchange of a deadly nuke. How she transforms from a hapless pushover to a smooth-talking, trash-talking secret agent is what forms the rest of the film.
McCarthy and company waste no time in getting down and dirty for your viewing pleasure. With the very first scene itself, the unintentional assassination of a high-profile arms dealer, the profanities start flowing and the one-liners start cropping up everywhere you look. In fact, in typical Feig style, the one-liners are delivered in such an understated and completely straight-faced manner that a less attentive viewer wouldn’t actually know the difference.
Sure, some of the gags and jabs in the first half hour miss their mark (by centimeters), but once McCarthy starts to settle into her new role and competing with a fellow agent (played by the inspired choice that is Jason Statham), the ride starts to function as smoothly as pancake batter.
But hey, it’s not like we’ve never had spy comedies before. We’ve had many, in fact. What makes Spy so great and distinguished is the fact that despite its (successful) attempts at cracking us up every few seconds, it never loses sight of the plot. In fact, it has an unusually dense plot for a comedy, with plenty of twists and back-stabbing and defections. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but Feig manages to keep you on your feet, both as a writer and as a director. With the help of his editors Brent White and Mellissa Bretherton, he keeps the pace snappy and the narrative flowing, so there isn’t a single dull moment.
But what makes Spy an even better and even more distinguishable is the fact that McCarthy’s character of Susan Cooper is a very strong one. Cooper doesn’t need saving. She doesn’t need to be rescued by a man while she bats her eyelids lovingly, she doesn’t sit around waiting while her macho lover saves the world. She’s the one who does the saving. She’s the one who dodges bullets and knifes and punches and scathing criticism of her dressing sense, jumps on flying helicopters and even flies crashing planes. And she does all that without her feeling the need to impress upon people her heroics, and without Feig feeling the need to make an obvious statement about him making a female the alpha dog.
Spy is the second spy comedy in recent months after Kingsman: The Secret Service. Much like the latter, Spy too is a demented and deliciously ludicrous entertainer, and much like the latter’s director Matthew Vaughn, Feig has a complete understanding of the material he’s written, the world he’s created and the atrocious characters that live and breathe in it.
Where Paul Feig is a master narrator is in extracting the perfect performances from his perfectly cast set of actors. You wouldn’t expect anything short of histrionics from McCarthy and she never delivers anything short of hilarious. She ably anchors the film on her heavyset shoulders, charming her way through even the film’s lower moments and steamrolling through the stronger ones. She gets the meatiest of lines and she delivers each of them with admirable ferocity yet vulnerability.
Rose Byrne, who plays the arms dealer looking to sell the bomb, is truly fantastic. Her character is that of a spoilt and bitchy aristocrat, and she plays it with the perfect deadpan delivery and condescending look. Jude Law and Jason Statham, two unlikely choices for such a film, are both a riot. While Law is slick and suave yet oblivious, Statham nails every word and every action and every expression, and his chemistry and hateful exchanges with McCarthy make for some of the film’s best moments.
Peter Serafinowicz’s is probably the most interesting character in the film, that of a lecherous spy, and he cracks you up every time he’s on screen. Bobby Cannavale, the chief baddie, is pretty good too in his short but devious role. Nargis Fakhri is virtually unnoticeable in her two-line, two-scene role.
Spy, then, is firmly a Paul Feig enterprise, with his set of favorite actors and his signature style of humor on full display. With stellar performances, screwball characters, seemingly endless supply of insults and profanities, and a laugh-per-minute ratio that keeps increasing as the film goes on, it’s hard to see how it could not end up being the perfect way to spend two hours this weekend.