Melissa McCarthy plays it surprisingly straight in the blandy-titled James Bond spoof Spy as a whip-smart but socially awkward CIA office drone thrust into globetrotting intrigue when the agency’s undercover agents are burned by a notorious arms dealer.
It’s the most appealing lead performance by the actress yet: McCarthy has gone from grating to grating in films like Identity Thief, Tammy, and The Heat, all riffs on her show-stealing supporting role as the groom’s irritating sister in Bridesmaids.
But here she’s genuinely likable, and the nails-on-chalkboard factor has been dialed down to almost nil. Her Susan Cooper isn’t the most graceful in either casual conversation or undercover intrigue, but she feels genuine and likable here; McCarthy also played it straight, to similar effect, earlier this year opposite Bill Murray in St. Vincent.
But that also means McCarthy isn’t terribly funny in Spy, and she serves as the butt of the film’s one-joke premise: namely, look at this oversized and unexperienced and highly unlikely physical presence bumbling her way through the world of international espionage.
But while the star plays it straight here, the ribald supporting cast seems to be having a blast mugging around. Jude Law opens the film stumbling through a typical Bond scenario, infiltrating a cocktail party while McCarthy’s Cooper feeds him information about his every move through an earpiece.
Law plays it cool and proper, too – which makes the culmination of his scenes even funnier when they end up in unfortunate Inspector Cluseau mishaps.
But it’s Jason Statham as fellow agent Rick Ford who steals the show. An unlikely but uproarious comic force, Statham takes a one-joke angle – as Ford rattles off ridiculous stories of implausible prior missions – and infuses it with the kind of manic conviction that the actor brings to other roles; Statham’s nonsense dialogue flies fast and furious and audience laughter drowns out a lot of it.
Unfortunately, Statham isn’t in the movie nearly enough: after his cover is blown (along with the other agents), he unsuccessfully attempts to covertly join McCarthy’s Susan Cooper on her top-secret mission in Europe.
That mission involves tracking down the daughter (Rose Byrne) of an international arms dealer who plans on selling an active bomb to some baddies. She’s aided in her quest by fellow office worker Nancy (Miranda Hart) and Italian spy Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz, who has a few choice lines).
Credit where credit is due: one exchange between McCarthy and Rose Byrne drew audible laughter from me. Byrne’s response to the inane toast “you may not be as wise as an owl, but you’ll always be a hoot to me,” is absolutely note-perfect.
But most of Spy is pretty thin, and it goes on for exactly 120 minutes – a good half hour more than you might expect from material like this. McCarthy makes for an unusually likable lead – Feig scores where other directors have failed, again, by not making her character pathetic or nails-on-chalkboard irritating – and the rest of the cast is game, but by the finale the film wears thin.
Still, Spy is mostly diverting and a good deal better than most mainstream comedies. Just don’t buy into the hype, which includes an inflated 94% rating on the Tomatometer.