Director Paul Feig has made some bad movies with Melissa McCarthy. The Heat and Bridesmaids were popular, it's true, but they were also cruel and unforgivably unfair to the women they were about. I console myself with the thought, however unlikely it may be, that it was McCarthy's irrepressible charm and inherent likability, even amid all the abuse she was forced to endure, that drew moviegoers to her (as well as to the other women featured in these films, of course).
But now, Feig has made a movie that allows McCarthy to be her own delightful self without asking us to laugh at her. In Spy, we laugh with her, while also commiserating with her, because this sneakily subversive movie confronts head-on issues of women's confidence (or lack thereof) and men's arrogance (and fear!) that so many movies—including The Heat—dare not touch, though they sometimes pretend to.
I hasten to add: Spy does its wonderfully seditious feminist things while also being funny as hell. I never laugh out loud at movies, and I laughed out loud a lot at Spy. Be sure to stay through the credits for one final laugh-out-loud moment.
At first, Spy looks like a simple spoof of James Bond flicks and other secret-agent adventures. Bradley Fine (Jude Law, sporting a perfect American accent) is a top CIA operative—suave, cool, badass and tuxedoed at the Bulgarian cocktail party he has infiltrated in order to catch a nuclear terrorist. We quickly see, though, that his awesomeness is at least as much a function of the assistance given him remotely by Susan Cooper (McCarthy)—his handler back at CIA HQ and in his earpiece—as it is his own doing. They're a team, a very capable team, him doing the physical stuff of taking out bad guys and her alerting him to the henchmen coming around a corner from her perch behind a computer at Langley.
But then comes the sneaky subversion: When Fine's mission unearths the fact that the big-time European arms dealer they're after—Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), playing a female villain whose badness has nothing to do with sex—knows the identity of all the CIA's current field agents, they have to send in someone she can't possibly know—someone like Cooper, who kicked ass at the CIA training academy, but has been deskbound ever since. Yet as much as Cooper aches for a chance to prove herself, she also worries that she's not up to the job because she has been gaslighted by Fine (and by the world at large) into believing that the best use of her talent is supporting—to the point of mothering, even—the likes of Bradley Fine.
Spy makes it very, very clear—in ways that are very, very funny—that women don't get the respect they deserve because men fear their competence and worry about the potential competition their competence presents. It may be unconscious or it may be deliberate, but the men here underestimate women to, ultimately, their own detriment, and the women end up overcoming the preconceptions about what they're capable of in glorious ways. The men include Jason Statham, sending up his onscreen persona as a ridiculously badass CIA agent, and not bothering with an American accent at all; I'm so happy to see that Statham has a sense of humor about himself. The women include Miranda Hart as another support agent who gets out into the field, and also Allison Janney as a CIA deputy director who has had e-freaking-nough with women who lack self-confidence for no good reason.
I love this movie so much, with only one caveat: Comedies for grownups do not need poop jokes (nor does comedy for kids, for that matter). Ditto the other few bits of pure gross-out humor, which are totally unnecessary and totally unfunny. They don't overwhelm the film, nor do they negate the rest of the genuinely clever humor, but they do hint that Feig doesn't trust himself that his smart, sympathetic, witty approach to the particular battles professional women fight—one that is also mostly sympathetic to men learning to deal with women as equals—is enough. It totally is, dude. Don't let Hollywood gaslight you into thinking otherwise.