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Spy (2015) Review

Updated on June 9, 2015

Women and spies—it’s a banner year for both. With Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, 007: Spectre, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Kingsman: The Secret Service, spy flicks are infiltrating the box office. Women, too, are front and center this year, with #freethenipple, Amy Schumer’s rising star, a complete takeover of the Tonys, and the film Suffragette forthcoming amidst a fevered surge for the fair treatment and depiction of women in Hollywood. Bearing all this in mind, the new Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy comes at the perfect cultural moment.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy), an overweight deskbound CIA agent, works in the ear of Bradley Fine (Law), a Bond-esque top field agent. Susan provides ridiculously specific tactical awareness and support to Bradley, from bombing precise coordinates with drones to warning him of a coming punch or kick. You could say Susan does most, or at least half, of the work. Bradley recognizes this—and repays her with food-themed jewelry and personal to-do lists. But when Bradley leaves the picture, Susan becomes the agency’s only hope.

Director Paul Feig is no stranger to female-empowering comedy, having helmed Bridesmaids and The Heat, and soon to take on the all-female Ghostbusters, each of which prominently feature McCarthy. The two are a force, a genuinely funny duo that causes you to confront our culture’s stereotypes of women by showing them to be utter nonsense.

That’s the part that works about this film. Not only is it a send-up of Hollywood spy tropes, it’s a send-up of the way women are treated and depicted in an industry where they are outnumbered, underutilized, and oversexualized. The initial hour of fat-shaming and chauvinism are revealing in this regard. It’s funny, to be sure. The genius is in how Feig tries to twist the script so that we’re no longer laughing with this brand of humor, but at it.

McCarthy smartly plays Susan as shy and apologetic throughout this first half, so that when the turn comes and she unleashes her unique brand of angry, mean-spirited humor, you can tell it’s coming from a place of overwhelming frustration. She’s fed up, and we applaud her bravado even as she struggles to repeatedly bring herself to this level of intensity. If only the film had grabbed hold of that instrument and played it.

Unfortunately, the last half seems to be missing something. Gone are the direct parodies of specific tropes; the film doesn’t make fun of them so much as it plays into them. This seems to come from a place of wanting to both acknowledge their ridiculousness and to legitimize the actions of the character we’re rooting for, to show that a woman can be in this kind of flick and it’s really not that different. The result is a conflicted, uneven tone. This is also reflected in McCarthy’s character, who vacillates between badass-taking-charge and dainty-apologetic-hopeless-case. I wanted Susan’s arc to follow through, but it loses steam.

What might have worked better—both for the purposes of the storytelling and for the feminist message—is if Susan, in her momentum, had realized the effectiveness of this new persona, and fully embraced the badass she was trying to hide. Then there would be no need to legitimize her as a female figure within an already existing genre. Instead, she could add to the parody by pointing and laughing, then blowing through, every trope she encounters. This would reflect both her inner strength and her transcendence of all the genre’s weaknesses. Unfortunately the humor stumbles once it runs into Feig’s stated ambition of crafting his own Bond film after being turned down to helm a real one.

A subtle subversion of both fat-shaming and gender-specific roles? Is this turning stereotypes into tools of empowerment...or perpetuating them?
A subtle subversion of both fat-shaming and gender-specific roles? Is this turning stereotypes into tools of empowerment...or perpetuating them?

There’s still plenty to like here. Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, and newcomer Miranda Hart all deliver the laughs, and the production value brings great action and eye candy. If only the quality of the storytelling had reached the same heights as the film’s gestures of female empowerment, this might have been elevated to the level of a classic.

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