You were probably able to glean what you were going to get from the new comedy Spy — starring Melissa McCarthy and directed by Paul Feig, the same actor/director pairing behind Bridesmaids and The Heat — based on its ads and trailers. Melissa McCarthy would be a spy, the film would draw much of its humor from McCarthy's outsize reactions to things, and there would be a mostly serviceable action plot to hold everything together.
Surprise! That's more or less everything you need to know about Spy. If you've liked or tolerated McCarthy and Feig's previous collaborations, you will probably like or tolerate this one as well. I'd rank it a notch behind those two, but I like The Heat more than almost anybody.
Still, Spy is a funny movie, and it's funny for a bunch of unexpected reasons that go beyond McCarthy's willingness to be a fearless clown. Let's count 'em down.
1) Jason Statham's amazing comedic chops
If you had told me before I saw this movie that what I would laugh at most would be action star Jason Statham, I would have been very surprised. But there he is, in the middle of everything, expertly undercutting everything you know about him.
His single best joke comes right before the closing credits — I won't spoil it here — but Spy literally does not contain a scene that isn't improved by Statham wandering in as an ultra-macho secret agent who is, nonetheless, a complete idiot. His early belief that the CIA possesses an actual machine that will let him switch faces, like in the movie Face/Off, is just a fun preview of what he's capable of.
Feig is great at pulling out new levels of lunacy from his actors. McCarthy, after all, was best known as the sweet best friend from a number of TV shows before portraying an over-the-top, raunchy libertine in Bridesmaids. But Feig's repurposing of Statham may be his finest use of unexpected casting yet.
2) The movie's subtle jokes about gender politics
Though Spy is being sold as "Can you believe Melissa McCarthy is playing a spy?!," the movie is nothing like that. Nobody expects her character, Susan Cooper, to be any good at spycraft, even though she went through CIA training and aced all her classes, and the movie knows the audience might be just as skeptical. By and large, action heroes don't look like Susan Cooper. Heck, very few action heroes are women to begin with.
Spy has a lot of fun with these preconceptions. There's a long string of ridiculous disguises that Susan is expected to wear in the field, all of which take the form of some stereotype we might subscribe to about women in McCarthy's rough age bracket — like an out-of-touch single mom.
And it then makes a hash of all of those preconceptions. Susan is really good at being a spy; in fact, sometimes she's so good that she cuts the film's dramatic tension. But the movie is smart about playing off the roles women are generally allowed to fill in movies like this, and then giving the starring role to Susan.
3) The rest of the women in the cast
With the exception of Statham, Spy's comedy isn't really driven by the men who appear in it. Peter Serafinowicz, normally a hilarious actor, does his damnedest as the lecherous Aldo, but the character is basically a walking Eurotrash joke, and Serafinowicz can't find a way to make Aldo as funny as he could be. Similarly, Jude Law seems stranded as the movie's James Bond riff (though he has an American accent for some reason).
But the film's women are all reliably hilarious. British comedy star Miranda Hart offers a boisterous presence in many scenes as Susan's friend Nancy, whose relationship with 50 Cent (yes, the real 50 Cent) takes several odd turns. Rose Byrne (another Bridesmaids alum) continues her streak of being great in wildly different roles as an incipient supervillain.
And Allison Janney proves the ace in the hole, as she always does, as a CIA director who's sick of the bullshit she has to put up with from her agents — but who isn't above putting Susan in ridiculous disguise after ridiculous disguise.
4) The action sequences, which seem like actual action sequences
Here's where Feig has improved the most as a director since The Heat, where it sometimes seemed as if he was layering in shootouts because the cop movie genre required them. Spy features some brutal, close-quarters fight scenes that work as well as they might in any "real" spy movie, and in the thick of them it's easy to forget that Spy is, above all, a ridiculous comedy.
However, Feig is consistently good at puncturing these moments of relative seriousness with a great gag or two. One such instance is the big chase scene teased in so many of the film's promos, which culminates in Susan flying her tiny motorbike over a ramp and landing it in a long stretch of wet cement that she has to force her way through. Feig's comic timing is his greatest strength, and it extends even to moments that don't really need it.
5) "The rats can fly!"
A random CIA employee yells this line when an enormous number of bats surge into the agency's main command center early in the film. It was the first joke that really made me laugh, and it reminded me that, if nothing else, Feig is great at writing big, obvious gags that nonetheless succeed. It made me think I was in for a good time — and Spy is definitely that.
Spy is playing in theaters throughout the country.