Direc­tor Paul Feig proves women can drive a com­mer­cial suc­cess while de­liv­er­ing the laughs.

Los Angeles Times - - SUNDAY CALENDAR - By Glenn Whipp glenn.whipp@la­times.com

I don’t know about you, but nor­mally a movie that trades heav­ily on jokes pegged to hem­or­rhoid wipes, stool soften­ers and anti-fun­gal cream doesn’t prompt me to leave the theater think­ing I’ve seen some­thing that sig­nif­i­cantly ad­vances the cause of wom­enin film.

But that’s pre­cisely what hap­pened with “Spy,” the Paul Feig com­edy star­ring Melissa McCarthy as a lonely CIA an­a­lyst who goes from be­ing a pa­tron­ized team player to sav­ing the world over the course of a funny two hours. In ad­di­tion to McCarthy’s se­cret agent, “Spy” sports an en­sem­ble of strongwomen— Al­li­son Jan­ney as a CIA boss, Rose Byrne mak­ing like Marie An­toinette play­ing the vil­lain, Mi­randa Hart as McCarthy’s over­looked col­league and best friend. They’re women in power, though Feig never calls at­ten­tion to their sta­tus or re­marks on it. It just is.

“Spy” won’t win any awards— hu­man­i­tar­ian, academy or oth­er­wise. But in ad­di­tion to be­ing wildly en­ter­tain­ing, watch­ing the film makes one thing clear: Paul Feig is one of the most im­por­tant film­mak­ers work­ing in Hol­ly­wood to­day. With his last three movies, Feig has oblit­er­ated the wall that sep­a­rated the sexes in movie come­dies.

First he made “Brides­maids,” a raunchy, lib­er­at­ing com­edy about fe­male friend­ship, and fol­lowed it up with “The Heat,” arau­cous buddy cop com­edy, and now “Spy,” which tog­gles be­tween be­ing a James Bond spoof and a giddy saga of self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion.

Af­ter be­ing told for years that he couldn’t cast women in leads, Feig now ex­clu­sively does just that, tak­ing gen­res and flip­ping them to make great, com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful show­cases for tal­ent like McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and San­dra Bul­lock. And as you prob­a­bly know, he’s not stop­ping. His next movie will be a “Ghost­busters” re­boot star­ring McCarthy, Wiig, Les­lie Jones and Kate McKin­non. And he’s do­ing it only be­cause, af­ter re­peat­edly turn­ing down the chance to di­rect a con­ven­tional “Ghost­busters” se­quel, the stu­dio let Feig cast it the­way hewanted.

“Spy,” from 20th Cen­tury Fox, feels like the movie Feig wrote for all the wom­enin Hol­ly­wood who have had to deal with doubters and dimwits their en­tire ca­reers. McCarthy’s char­ac­ter be­gins the movie as some­thing of a high-tech Money penny, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with Jude Law’s 007 stand-in via an ear­piece, tip­ping him off to ev­ery en­emy and ob­sta­cle around the cor­ner.

he re­ward for her ex­per­tise? She’s asked to pickup his dry clean­ing (and fire his gar­dener) be­fore he ar­rives home. De­spite her ob­vi­ous ex­per­tise, Su­san is ig­nored and be­lit­tled. She­wants to work in the field but doubts she’ll ever be given the op­por­tu­nity.

“They would never let me be aspy,” she laments.

Hear­ing those words, it’s hard not to think of the re­cent ACLU re­view that found a “very dis­turb­ing and com­pelling pic­ture of long-run­ning sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion in the film and tele­vi­sion in­dus­tries.”

The suc­cess of “Brides­maids” was sup­posed to help change all that. The movie, writ­ten by Wiig and An­nie Mu­molo, grossed $288 mil­lion world wide with more than 40% of the take com­ing from over­seas, dis­miss­ing the no­tion that for­eign au­di­ences won’t see fe­male-driven movies.

Be­fore “Brides­maids” pre­miered, Feig told The Times that “all my fe­male writer friends had their projects on hold, on pro­ba­tion” with ex­ec­u­tives telling them they’d have to wait to see if au­di­ences em­braced the film.

They did. But it would seem that many of those projects must still be on pro­ba­tion. Women wrote only 11% of the top-250-gross­ing films in 2014, ac­cord­ing to San Diego State Uni­ver­sity’s Celluloid Ceil­ing Re­port, a drop of 2% from the late ’90s. A USC study found that in 2013 and 2014, women di­rected just 1.9% ofthe top-gross­ing100 films.

Feig is do­ing what he can to boost those to­tals, work­ing with Katie Dip­pold on “The Heat” and the up­com­ing “Ghost­busters” as well as Wiig and Mu­molo on “Brides­maids.”( He wrote “Spy.”) But re­ally, the most im­por­tant thing he’s do­ing with th­ese movies is cre­at­ing emo­tion­ally hon­est fe­male char­ac­ters who are strong, funny and driv­ing the plot.

Yes, the films are silly and pro­fane. They also own a care­free fem­i­nism that feels or­ganic to the sto­ry­telling. In the im­mor­tal words of the Is­ley Broth­ers, they fight the power (the song that opens “The Heat”), but their pol­i­tics re­main pri­mar­ily fo­cused on the democ­racy of com­edy. If you’re funny, you can be a star, re­gard­less of gen­der, race or body type.

This has al­ways been his sub­ject of choice. Fif­teen years ago, af­ter the brief, glo­ri­ous run of his com­ing-of-age TV se­ries “Freaks and Geeks,” Feig had his pick of movies — pro­vided they­were about young men try­ing to get lucky. He wasn’t in­ter­ested. The films he did make—“Un­ac­com­pa­nied Mi­nors,” “I Am David” — didn’t do well at the box of­fice, land­ing Feig in movie jail for sev­eral years.

He re­turned to tele­vi­sion, bol­ster­ing his re­sume and his skill set di­rect­ing such shows as “The Of­fice,” “Ar­rested Devel­op­ment,” “Nurse Jackie” and the “Mad Men” episode in­whicha bored Betty pulled out Bobby’s BB gun and took aim at the neigh­bor’s pi­geons.

The com­mon ground in th­ese shows: They all con­tained well-writ­ten roles for ac­tresses.

“It’s very much a con­scious de­ci­sion,” Feig told The Times. “I just love work­ing with women.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, Feig has faced back­lash, mostly from “Ghost­busters” diehards who can’t wrap their heads around the idea of women be­ing given the keys to the pro­ton packs. Which just seems ab­surd on so many lev­els. I mean: McCarthy, Wiig, McKin­non, Jones. Who you gonna call? When you come up with four fun­nier hu­mans, pick up the phone and give me a shout.

Larry Hor­ricks 20th Cen­tury Fox

MELISSA McCARTHY in “Spy” has to deal with doubters and dimwits, just like women in Hol­ly­wood.

Larry Hor­ricks 20th Cen­tury Fox

DIREC­TOR PAUL FEIG (cen­ter) with Jude Law and Melissa McCarthy on the set of his most re­cent fe­male-cen­tric movie, “Spy.”

Suzanne Hanover Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios

“BRIDES­MAIDS,” which grossed $288 mil­lion world­wide, con­tra­dicted the idea that for­eign au­di­ences won’t see fe­male-driven films.

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