Maybe Spy works because Paul Feig knows how to showcase Melissa McCarthy's comedic chops best. Maybe it works because it's been a damn long time since we've seen a send-up of the spy genre. Maybe it works because it has an undercurrent of respect for its leading lady, or because the supporting stars are brilliantly used, or because it doesn't skirt away from real violence, smart action sequences, and a torrential downpour of expletive-heavy insults. Whatever the case may be, one thing is for certain: Spy harnesses McCarthy's aggressive energy and aligns it with the facts of her personhood. It's a funny movie with the added benefit of being a little smarter than it appears.
As a director, Feig has always succeeded in allowing McCarthy to directly address the misconceptions that come with her physical appearance. As much as it may suck, she's not what we're used to seeing at the top of the Hollywood heap, and more often than not she is cast in roles that seem to inspire pity or exploit a character's self-loathing. Films like Tammy and Identity Thief misuse McCarthy largely because they ask her to assume the role of a self-hating loser when she is precisely the opposite. McCarthy is a movie star, she has presence, she steals scenes. When she steps up, any culturally ingrained expectations are completely subverted, and this is something Spy understands.
As the film continues, we find that it is a path littered with the corpses of those who doubt Susan Cooper - and/or - would place McCarthy in a box. Cooper is not an underdog, she is not an unlikely hero, instead, she is quickly established as someone who kept herself in check, but who is just as capable as the peers in her headset. She's not a cat lady, not some sad, Midwestern rube excited to visit the Eiffel Tower, not the kind of woman who goes unnoticed sitting alone at a cafe. Instead, the film embraces her as an A-list star. It shows us an in-control heroine who casts off the haters, steps up to the challenge, and quickly proves herself to be not only worthy, but often superior to all parties involved in the game.
As much as McCarthy proves herself to be a star here, the supporting cast is often just as surprising and proves to be equally game in their casting. Jude Law embraces the role of the dapper yet dopey Bradley Fine, but it's Jason Statham's hot-headed Rick Ford who steals a great many scenes. Statham is surprisingly funny, and eager to lampoon his entire filmography in scene after scene of over-the-top claims and cranked up testosterone. While it may seem expected, it's nice to see a film that takes an action-film poster boy and proves him to be a master of bad decisions time and again. Byrne, too, gets to play an expert version of a "rich bitch" archetype, and her complete disdain and disinterest works wonderfully with McCarthy's general inability to play the silent companion. There are fabulous turns from Miranda Hart and Allison Janney, too, but before we close this out I have to leave you with my only real complaint:
As effective as Spy is as a comedy, it completely disregards the possibilities of the cinematic medium. That may seem like a silly thing to demand of a film that has as its lifeblood an endless stream of insults, but there's not a tremendous amount of care given to the cinematography here, and that kinda matters. Given the espionage genre's general attention to style, it seems important that in aping that and positing a world in which McCarthy's Cooper runs with the big dogs, she should be treated to bit of that runoff glitz and not a Europe that looks shot for TV. Sure - it's the kind of movie that will be loved and re-watched in cable reruns and through streaming services - but does it have to look like it was made on the cheap? The thing needs some attention and some consideration, it succeeds in presenting Melissa McCarthy as a true leading lady, now it's time for the film to look like a place we would actually find her.