Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s ‘Spy’ Is So Much More Than a Slapstick Spoof

The key joke in Paul Feig’s Spy shows up in the trailer, and no, it’s not Melissa McCarthy falling over on a scooter. Instead, we find her standing curbside at the Rome airport, decked out in the ugly garb and unflattering wig of a bland cat lady on vacation. An open-roofed sports car rolls by, its inhabitants catcalling the models next to her, but as they pass McCarthy, they clam up, staring at her in silence. And then they proceed to “bella!” the rest of the women on the curb. “That’s a real confidence-builder,” McCarthy muses, and it gets a laugh — as most of the jokes in this very funny comedy do — but it also underlines what the movie is about. At its core, this action-packed, globe-trotting, gender-switched Bond spoof is about lookism.

This, it’s important to note, does not mean that Spy is about McCarthy’s weight, leaning on the crutch of “fat jokes” that have defined such projects as Identity Thief, Mike & Molly, and even McCarthy’s own Tammy. The aforementioned scooter gag, and another of her tumbling over a car hood, are slapstick beats that (thankfully) are the closest Feig gets to weight-based humor. Spy’s central premise is not, as you might expect from its description or advertisements, Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if Melissa McCarthy were a spy? It’s: Wouldn’t it be funny if Melissa McCarthy were a great spy?

Allison Janney and Melissa McCarthy in "Spy"

But there are barriers that keep our hero Susan Cooper (McCarthy) behind a CIA desk, where she works as an analyst and provides information and instructions to field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) during his missions. It’s a low-profile gig she keeps partially because of her crush on Fine, but he’s the kind of jerk who thanks her for saving his life by giving her a cupcake necklace and purring, “It’s so you.” He was also her mentor in the academy, and “sniped” her before she could get into the field herself. “I really thought he made some great points,” she explains to deputy director Crocker (Allison Janney), who all but growls a disappointed “women” in response.

That’s merely Feig’s most explicit articulation of the movie’s gender politics; among its other leads, Fine is oblivious, blind to Cooper’s warmth and charm, while fellow agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) is machismo personified, a not-terribly-bright (he keeps insisting the agency has a “Face/Off Machine”) hot dogger who keeps appearing to assure Susan she’s going “ruin this mission.”

Yet she’s ultimately her own worst enemy, constantly undercutting not only her looks, but her life. Of becoming an agent, she despairs, “I’m just the same boring person as I was before” while out for drinks with a work friend — where they find the service to be “super slow,” though their colleague (Morena Baccarin) strolls right up to get a drink from a bartender who knows her by name. Some of the blame goes to Cooper’s mother, who instilled in her such life lessons as, “Well-behaved women often make history” and “Give up on your dreams, Susan — she used to write that in my lunchbox.”

Melissa McCarthy in "Spy"

In fact, Susan is so sapped of confidence in her own abilities that when Crocker locates an academy training video capturing what she calls, with delicate understatement, “a fiery side,” Susan won’t even own up to it. Yet when she succeeds on the first leg of her mission and Crocker tells her it’s time to come home, she resists; “I’m not one to toot my own horn,” she announces, “but y’know what, I’m gonna toot!” It’s a big moment for her, and one that points to Susan finally finding her footing as an agent. On the next leg of the mission, she ends up in the company of target Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), and when it seems her cover is blown, Cooper thinks on her feet. Calling Rayna a “little spoiled piece of shit,” she announces herself as a “private bodyguard,” hired to protect Rayna by the target’s late father, and taking on that persona allows her to shift her own. She drops F-bombs left and right, fires back at Rayna’s creative insults, and assumes the identity of a badass so convincingly that she ultimately becomes one.

All of this may make Spy sound like more of a polemic than it ultimately is, and the subtext doesn’t overpower the wacky action/comedy text. But it does motivate it. With Bridesmaids and The Heat behind him and the female Ghostbusters on the horizon, Feig is making a legitimate, admirable effort to increase the visibility and complexity of women in mainstream movies. That he does it with such panache, while still crafting a summer entertainment as enjoyable and uproarious as Spy, is downright applause-worthy.

Spy is in theaters Friday.