In Spy, the new comedy from Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, the American comic actress Melissa McCarthy finally gets a role in which she’s front and centre, in a film about a woman who is anything but. She plays Susan Cooper, a frumpy desk analyst for the CIA whose job is to feed surveillance info to the glamorous agents out in the field, including the spook of her dreams, Bradley Fine, played with a wink by Jude Law.
When Fine is taken out by an equally glamorous villain, Rayna Boyanov, played by Rose Byrne — who’s after a nuclear bomb that’s lurking around somewhere — Susan feels duty-bound to go out into the big bad world and finish what Fine started.
Much has been made of Feig’s clever-yet-somehow-unpreachy agenda with this movie. Susan, a woman of a certain age and of certain proportions, does not fit with the Agency’s idea of what a super-spy should look like (a point hammered home — most enjoyably — by the casting of Jason Statham as a hotheaded and stupendously inept agent who resents Cooper’s recent promotion).
Each time she gets given a new identity by her taciturn boss (Allison Janney), it’s some version of “Midwestern cat lady with a fanny-pack”. Problem is, Susan’s really quite good at the whole espionage thing, and the film soon zips along as Susan gets deeper into the nest of vipers and closer to Rayna.
What gives Feig’s movie a nicely spiky edge, of course, is the fact that Saturday Night Live alumna McCarthy, an actress also of a certain age and certain proportions, has herself not been Hollywood’s idea of what a leading lady should look like, yet here she is comfortably holding one of the funniest films of the year.
The problem — and yes, we appreciate the irony of this point being made by a men’s magazine, but whatchagonnado? — is that McCarthy’s performance is still being lauded for her “mastery of slapstick” and her “physical comedy skills”.
Certainly Spy has action gags, such as a knockabout chase sequence on a scooter, for example, but the funniest bits don’t come from Susan’s body, but from Susan’s mouth: her crushing disappointment when a surprise present from Fine turns out to be a novelty cupcake brooch; the foul-mouthed tirade she unleashes on Byrne’s Rayna later in the movie while posing as her bodyguard.
(Incidentally, no one’s praising the physical comedy prowess of the more conventionally slender actress Rose Byrne even though she spends a good deal of the film staggering, to humorous effect, under the weight of Rayna’s ridiculously voluminous hair.)
McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is meek and downtrodden, angry and resentful, soft and romantic, violent and sweary. She is much more, and much funnier, than just a tubby lady on a moped. Yes we’ve woken up to half the joke of this subtly subversive movie, but clearly there’s more work to do.
Out June 5