‘Spy’ is an agent of fun for McCarthy

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Mark Olsen

For a few years now, sum­mer movies have been tinged by such dark­ness and de­struc­tion that when a movie as adamantly breezy as “Spy” comes along it feels not just re­fresh­ing but like a re­buke. Movies can be fun too, it wants to re­mind au­di­ences, with­out be­ing op­pres­sive, mean or to­tally mind­less.

The movie also con­tin­ues the mid­ca­reer blos­som­ing for Melissa McCarthy, who once might have been des­tined for a life­time of sup­port­ing parts but has stepped into lead roles af­ter her Os­car-nom­i­nated turn in “Brides­maids” and the suc­cess of the TV sit­com “Mike and Molly.”

Writ­ten and di­rected by Paul Feig, who worked with McCarthy on “Brides­maids” and “The Heat,” the new film

is also re­mark­able for the way it doesn’t build any­one up by tak­ing some­one else down. With a warm and open-hearted way about it, even the vil­lains in “Spy” are adorable.

McCarthy plays Su­san Cooper, a CIA an­a­lyst who sits at a bank of com­put­ers in a base­ment of­fice — with a ver­min prob­lem that pro­vides a sur­pris­ingly ef­fec­tive run­ning joke — where she over­sees mis­sions for debonair agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Fine is taken out while pur­su­ing the daugh­ter of a de­ceased Eastern Euro­pean arms dealer, who is now bro­ker­ing the sale of a stolen nu­clear bomb. Rayna Boy­anov (Rose Byrne) also re­veals she has a list of other known op­er­a­tives, which forces agent Rick Ford (Ja­son Statham) un­der­ground and Su­san is sent into the field for the first time.

As the ac­tion sends her across Europe, through­out the movie other peo­ple are con­stantly mak­ing as­sump­tions about Su­san Cooper, largely based on the way she looks.

Re­peat­edly peo­ple just fig­ure she must have a lot of cats, be­ing a sin­gle woman of a cer­tain age and cer­tain shape, and the sad, frumpy tourist cover iden­ti­ties and cos­tumes she is given by her su­pe­rior (a dry Al­li­son Jan­ney) feel like one small dig af­ter an­other.

So when Su­san emerges glammed up for an evening un­der­cover at a swank casino — and with McCarthy look­ing great — there is sud­denly some­thing down­right rad­i­cal and ex­pres­sive added to the tired idea of the makeover. Su­san is fi­nally be­ing al­lowed to show the ver­sion of her­self that has al­ways ex­isted within her but has never been al­lowed to flour­ish.

Feig is at his best han­dling those kind of grace notes, just as in “Brides­maids” he would some­times pause the ac­tion for a re­laxed, con­ver­sa­tional scene be­tween Kristen Wiig and Maya Ru­dolph or al­low nu­ance for Byrne’s per­fec­tion­ist sec­ond wife. In “Spy” a sim­i­lar dy­namic emerges in scenes with McCarthy and Byrne or McCarthy and the Bri­tish co­me­dian Mi­randa Hart, an­other desk-bound agent sent into the field as backup.

It’s the re­la­tion­ship be­tween McCarthy and Byrne that gives the film its comedic spine and true soul as they ap­proach each other war­ily, never quite sure of the other’s true in­ten­tions.

Watch­ing the ac­tresses to­gether as their char­ac­ters es­tab­lish a be­grudg­ing mu­tual re­spect and some­thing like friend­ship, such as in a se­quence on a pri­vate jet that skill­fully slides from talk­ing to fight­ing, is a thing of pure joy.

Statham turns the movie and his own tough-guy per­sona up­side down ev­ery time he comes on-screen. His rants ex­tolling his own ac­com­plish­ments as an agent are mar­vels for their lu­natic in­ten­sity. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see if there is any resid­ual shine from this role for him down the line, whether it will be­come slightly more dif­fi­cult for au­di­ences to ac­cept his ac­tion roles with­out a chuckle.

Amid Byrne’s haughty dis­dain, an­i­mal prints and piled-high hair, Statham’s too-much-ness and Hart’s low-key de­liv­ery, McCarthy is some­times rel­e­gated to be­ing the straight one in her own star­ring ve­hi­cle. But she makes it work by the sub­tle emo­tional shad­ing she brings to the role.

Su­san is not an In­spec­tor Clouseau-style bun­gler, be­cause any mis­takes she makes are ones of in­ex­pe­ri­ence, not in­com­pe­tence. When she wins a fight or oth­er­wise ad­vances her mission there is an im­pulse to cheer not just for the plot ad­vance­ment but for char­ac­ter, for her.

The film isn’t a full-on spoof of spy movies in the way of the “Austin Pow­ers” pic­tures or the many other riffs on James Bond. It isn’t all that in­vested in its es­pi­onage plot or ac­tion me­chan­ics be­yond mo­ti­va­tion to bring this odd as­sort­ment of char­ac­ters to­gether and keep them mov­ing from one swank-look­ing lo­cale to the next.

As it all falls into place for the fi­nale, it should prob­a­bly feel more am­pli­fied than it does — it’s a miss­ing nu­clear de­vice af­ter all — but Feig ’s ex­pert mod­u­la­tion of the com­edy and the ob­vi­ous de­light of his crack cast man­age to skate right past such con­cerns.

“Spy” may not be a great movie, but it is great fun. And at times it will have you won­der­ing if there’s that much of a dif­fer­ence.

20th Cen­tur y Fox

AL­LI­SON JAN­NEY

plays Melissa McCarthy’s char­ac­ter’s su­pe­rior in the open-hearted com­edy “Spy.”

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