MOVIES

Director Paul Feig shows women can carry comedies

I don't know about you, but normally a movie that trades heavily on jokes pegged to hemorrhoid wipes, stool softeners and anti-fungal cream doesn't prompt me to leave the theater thinking I've seen something that significantly advances the cause of women in film.

But that's precisely what happened with "Spy," the Paul Feig comedy starring Melissa McCarthy as a lonely CIA analyst who goes from being a patronized team player to saving the world over the course of a funny two hours. In addition to McCarthy's secret agent, "Spy" sports an ensemble of strong women — Allison Janney as a CIA boss, Rose Byrne making like Marie Antoinette playing the villain, Miranda Hart as McCarthy's overlooked colleague and best friend. They're women in power, though Feig never calls attention to their status or remarks on it. It just is.

"Spy" won't win any awards — humanitarian, academy or otherwise. But in addition to being wildly entertaining, watching the film makes one thing clear: Paul Feig is one of the most important filmmakers working in Hollywood today. With his last three movies, Feig has obliterated the wall that separated the sexes in movie comedies. First he made "Bridesmaids," a raunchy, liberating comedy about female friendship, and followed it up with "The Heat," a raucous buddy cop comedy, and now "Spy," which toggles between being a James Bond spoof and a giddy saga of self-actualization.

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After being told for years that he couldn't cast women in leads, Feig now exclusively does just that, taking genres and flipping them to make great, commercially successful showcases for talent like McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Sandra Bullock. And as you probably know, he's not stopping. His next movie will be a "Ghostbusters" reboot starring McCarthy, Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. And he's doing it only because, after repeatedly turning down the chance to direct a conventional "Ghostbusters" sequel, the studio let Feig cast it the way he wanted.

"Spy," from 20th Century Fox, feels like the movie Feig wrote for all the women in Hollywood who have had to deal with doubters and dimwits their entire careers. McCarthy's character begins the movie as something of a high-tech Moneypenny, communicating with Jude Law's 007 stand-in via an earpiece, tipping him off to every enemy and obstacle around the corner. The reward for her expertise? She's asked to pick up his dry cleaning (and fire his gardener) before he arrives home. Despite her obvious expertise, Susan is ignored and belittled. She wants to work in the field but doubts she'll ever be given the opportunity.

"They would never let me be a spy," she laments.

Hearing those words, it's hard not to think of the recent ACLU review that found a "very disturbing and compelling picture of long-running systemic discrimination in the film and television industries."

The success of "Bridesmaids" was supposed to help change all that. The movie, written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, grossed $288 million worldwide with more than 40% of the take coming from overseas, dismissing the notion that foreign audiences won't see female-driven movies. Before "Bridesmaids" premiered, Feig told The Times that "all my female writer friends had their projects on hold, on probation" with executives telling them they'd have to wait to see if audiences embraced the film.

They did. But it would seem that many of those projects must still be on probation. Women wrote only 11% of the top-250-grossing films in 2014, according to San Diego State University's Celluloid Ceiling Report, a drop of 2% from the late '90s. A USC study found that in 2013 and 2014, women directed just 1.9% of the top-grossing 100 films.

Feig is doing what he can to boost those totals, working with Katie Dippold on "The Heat" and the upcoming "Ghostbusters" as well as Wiig and Mumolo on "Bridesmaids." (He wrote "Spy.") But really, the most important thing he's doing with these movies is creating emotionally honest female characters who are strong, funny and driving the plot. Yes, the films are silly and profane. They also own a carefree feminism that feels organic to the storytelling. In the immortal words of the Isley Brothers, they fight the power (the song that opens "The Heat"), but their politics remain primarily focused on the democracy of comedy. If you're funny, you can be a star, regardless of gender, race or body type.

This has always been his subject of choice. Fifteen years ago, after the brief, glorious run of his coming-of-age TV series "Freaks and Geeks," Feig had his pick of movies — provided they were about young men trying to get lucky. He wasn't interested. The films he did make — "Unaccompanied Minors," "I Am David" — didn't do well at the box office, landing Feig in movie jail for several years. He returned to television, bolstering his resume and his skill set directing such shows as "The Office," "Arrested Development," "Nurse Jackie" and the "Mad Men" episode in which a bored Betty pulled out Bobby's BB gun and took aim at the neighbor's pigeons.

The common ground in these shows: They all contained well-written roles for actresses.

"It's very much a conscious decision," Feig told The Times. "I just love working with women."

Not surprisingly, Feig has faced backlash, mostly from "Ghostbusters" diehards who can't wrap their heads around the idea of women being given the keys to the proton packs. Which just seems absurd on so many levels. I mean: McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, Jones. Who you gonna call? When you come up with four funnier humans, pick up the phone and give me a shout.

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