In the world of comedy, there is funny, and there is Paul Feig. The man just knows how to make people laugh, and so much so that it hurts. He’s already got a lovely working relationship with Melissa McCarthy and he himself is a writing/directing dynamo, but it is very unclear where Feig’s brilliance ends and McCarthy’s begins. Perhaps it’s not worth wasting too many brain cells as their latest collaboration is ten kinds of funny, and that’s all that matters.
Spy films and their ilk have seen countless, and we mean countless, spoofs, homages, or blatant copycats. Spy is bits of all three and yet still manages to put focus on what is most important to find its special groove. First and foremost, this is a comedy and, just like Matthew Vaughn with his patented anarchic irreverence, Paul Feig is a prolific genius who defies both the norm and expectations.
Sure, the intro credits and dashing lead Jude Law muster up many callbacks to famous, and even not-so famous spy films, but like the checklist of elements mandated by the genre, it all works because the team knows the rules by which they’re playing. This is not the story of the man, err woman who knew too little, or a Leslie Nielsen kind of comic outing. To be fair, this takes a few plays of the ‘character out of their element’ playbook, but McCarthy isn’t flying by the seat of her pants or getting lucky at every turn. Not at all.
This movie is about an underdog getting their chance when nobody thought much of them. It’s rude, and relies on a lot of McCarthy to weave tapestries of ad-libbed absurdity. But she is strong and Feig has always made that a constant in his work. Granted he’s not gone to Miyazaki levels of commitment or tone with messages of the empowerment of women. The Heat was brilliant, and now with Spy, Feig seems confident with his litmus test for the upcoming Ghostbusters’ all female reboot…but that is a whole other discussion.
It’s not that Spy is a send-up of landmark or seminal films in the genre, but downplay some of the comedy and you could have quite an interesting spy piece. That’s a smart move on Feig’s part because when threats arise, a lesser filmmaker might have relied on the wackiness to bring the comic story home. There are some admittedly ridiculous and downright stupid parts, for the sake of appeasing different parts of the audience, but this is a roller coaster comedy event that dances close to being a legitimate yet grounded actioner.
McCarthy takes the lead (as if the Goldfinger inspired poster above didn’t tip you off), and you could write books on how smart her comedy and her delivery are, but what makes the movie work are actually the strength and effectiveness of the supporting characters. Jason Statham is a send-up of iron willed and pompous super spies. Rose Byrne is a send-up of a Bond girl/villainess, but her hapless coworker and even her contact, the hilariously insensitive Peter Serafinowicz, keep McCarthy from doing all the heavy lifting. Some may not be keen to McCarthy’s style of humor, or how she delivers something above and beyond the script, but she digs deep and pulls out comic gold 9 times out of 10. If it’s not her delivery that kills, it’s the physical humor which is just as funny.
The only thing that is kind of a drawback, aside from the longer than expected runtime, is that Theodore Shapiro, or anyone attempting to write music for a spy film or spoof, runs into the same trap. They are nearly forced into using the established but very limited palette of so-called spy themes. Still, his music could stand on its own as playing things serious (which is the right move) really starts to pay off near the end of the film. There are some really great muscial cues and motifs in the finale.
Honestly, whether or not Feig was at the helm (or the writing desk) this could have gone either way. Thankfully Spy comes out ahead in all areas, and even the long run time doesn’t do much to diminish the quality of comedy and entertainment on display.