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Melissa McCarthy, Hollywood’s reigning empress of ha-ha, has a license to not only kill the audience with laughter but also to slay us with her acting skills in the role of a female version of James Bond in the film “Spy.” In this role, she has the opportunity to do both. And to witness her deliver a lead performance that is not only completely satisfying but also encompasses the entire dramatic arc is a thing of breathtaking beauty. Just look at how dramatically her eyes moisten in response to her outstanding co-stars in a way that would make Bette Davis proud. That is the case even if her mouth is spitting out an offensive string of R-rated putdowns in an inappropriate manner.
It is gratifying to see her back in the arms of her best collaborator, director Paul Feig, after her misbegotten turn last summer as a down-on-her-luck sadsack in “Tammy,” which caused even the most ardent “Mike & Molly” fans to worry that the actress had lost her mouthy mojo (although her supporting role in “St. Vincent” provided some solace), Also stepping up his game is the director who was responsible for her breakout role in “Bridesmaids” as well as her blockbuster pairing with Sandra Bullock in “The Heat.” He does not simply launch into an unorganized string of inside jokes and sight gags in the style of Austin Powers. In addition, Feig delivers a decent, albeit convoluted, espionage plot, which comes complete with tense action sequences, a surprising twist, and opening credits that are inspired by 007, and is spiked with a high percentage of jokes that actually work.
The majority of the enjoyment comes from watching Susan Cooper, played by Melissa McCarthy and portrayed as sweet but insecure, transform from a CIA analyst forced to work in a dingy, vermin-infested bunker to a highly skilled undercover detective searching for the location of a stolen nuclear weapon. She is just as comfortable acting the part of a cat lady in the Midwest or engaging in a hand-to-hand fight à la Jackie Chan against a female assailant in a confined kitchen space using baguettes, frying pans, and lettuce as lethal weaponry. Both of these roles are equally comfortable for her.
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However, when we first meet Cooper, she is carrying out her responsibilities as a field agent’s “earpiece” while simultaneously live-monitoring his whereabouts using satellite images and a body cam. She is essentially a human GPS that can forewarn of impending dangers and incorrect turns that lead to peril. She harbors a crush on the smug undercover dandy Bradley Fine (a very-fine-indeed Jude Law, clearly enjoying a contact high from being in such a free-wheeling ensemble romp), and for the time being she is content with assisting him. This is especially true given that she has a not-so-secret crush on him. She yearns to go after the bad guys herself, but for the time being she is satisfied with assisting Bradley Fine. However, when it appears that he has been killed on the job, Cooper’s exasperated boss, Allison Janney (somewhat channeling her “Juno” husband, J.K. Simmons), decides to take a chance on sending her to Europe to hunt down the bad guys.
McCarthy has proven in her previous work that she is at her most effective when collaborating with others, and Feig provides an excellent selection of foils for her here. Anyone who hasn’t seen the British comedienne Miranda Hart in her role as Nancy, Cooper’s well-meaning but clumsy sidekick, on the PBS show “Call the Midwife” is missing out on a real find. Hart plays the role of Cooper’s earpiece. Hart towers over McCarthy and everyone else at a height of 6 feet and 1 inch, and the two of them fit nicely into the tradition of mismatched comedic duos such as Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy.
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Rose Byrne, who previously appeared in “Bridesmaids,” plays the role of the heartless antagonist in this film. Byrne, who displays a constant look of disdain and has an elaborate hairdo that could double as a Byzantine sculpture, meets Cooper when the agent poses as her bodyguard, and the two of them immediately dislike each other. Byrne’s elaborate hairdo could double as a Byzantine sculpture. Byrne’s posh demeanor enables her to get away with some rather vile verbal slaps that, if delivered by McCarthy, would otherwise leave viewers groaning in disgust. McCarthy, on the other hand, is no slouch when it comes to insults.
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But McCarthy truly meets her match in the form of British action star Jason Statham, who goes wonderfully bonkers as a bratty rogue agent named Ford. Ford is incensed that a newbie like Cooper is on the case and shows his disgruntlement by constantly bragging about his manly feats of yore like a Cockney Paul Bunyan (“I’ve swirled enough microchips to shit a f—kin’ computer”). McCarthy, on the
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But what I found myself appreciating the most about “Spy” was something that went beyond the bouncy and brassy McCarthy’s regular servings of tasty bits of business, such as telling a stunned Swedish henchman to cut off his own manhood and stick it on his forehead like a unicorn’s horn, or accidentally mistaking a mushroom-like hot towelette for an appetizer. Instead, it was the way in which Feig and company poke fun at the macho posturing and chauvinistic attitudes that are inherent in the spy genre. This would include the observation that Nancy made, which stated that Ford’s tweed cap gives him the appearance of being a member of the cast of “Newsies.” But, for the most part, McCarthy and her fellow female coworkers are too busy doing their jobs to be bothered with the sexist advances made by the likes of Aldo, a harassing lug of a guardian who primarily wants to protect Cooper’s breasts. Although Hart’s Nancy does make a detour in order to hang out with the rapper 50 Cent, the meeting does not go as planned (a cameo that pays off better than one would think).
However, not everything is up to par. After the first time, it’s kind of funny when a man falls on top of a woman while she’s in an awkward position, but it loses its charm after that. In addition, as was the case with the crime drama “The Heat,” an excessive amount of violence is effective in conveying the message that ladies can be just as tough as men, if not tougher. However, when the bad guys start piling up with reckless abandon and Melissa McCarthy’s character, Cooper, barely flinches as she shoots her enemies to death, it detracts from the humor rather than adding to it. However, the success of a comedy can only ever be judged by how much it actually makes its audience laugh. As long as the number of smiles far outnumbers the number of dead, everything will be fine.