For a few years now, summer movies have been tinged by such darkness and destruction that when a movie as adamantly breezy as “Spy” comes along it feels not just refreshing but like a rebuke. Movies can be fun too, it wants to remind audiences, without being oppressive, mean or totally mindless.
The movie also continues the midcareer blossoming for Melissa McCarthy, who once might have been destined for a lifetime of supporting parts but has stepped into lead roles after her Oscar-nominated turn in “Bridesmaids” and the success of the TV sitcom “Mike and Molly.”
Written and directed by Paul Feig, who worked with McCarthy on “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat,” the new film is also remarkable for the way it doesn’t build anyone up by taking someone else down. With a warm and open-hearted way about it, even the villains in “Spy” are adorable.
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McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who sits at a bank of computers in a basement office — with a vermin problem that provides a surprisingly effective running joke — where she oversees missions for debonair agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Fine is taken out while pursuing the daughter of a deceased Eastern European arms dealer, who is now brokering the sale of a stolen nuclear bomb. Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) also reveals she has a list of other known operatives, which forces agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) underground and Susan is sent into the field for the first time.
As the action sends her across Europe, throughout the movie other people are constantly making assumptions about Susan Cooper, largely based on the way she looks. Repeatedly people just figure she must have a lot of cats, being a single woman of a certain age and certain shape, and the sad, frumpy tourist cover identities and costumes she is given by her superior (a dry Allison Janney) feel like one small dig after another.
So when Susan emerges glammed-up for an evening undercover at a swank casino — and with McCarthy looking great — there is suddenly something downright radical and expressive added to the tired idea of the makeover. Susan is finally being allowed to show the version of herself that has always existed within her but has never been allowed to flourish.
Feig is at his best handling those kind of grace notes, just as in “Bridesmaids” he would sometimes pause the action for a relaxed, conversational scene between Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph or allow nuance for Byrne’s perfectionist second wife. In “Spy” a similar dynamic emerges in scenes with McCarthy and Byrne or McCarthy and the British comedian Miranda Hart, another desk-bound agent sent into the field as backup.
It’s the relationship between McCarthy and Byrne that gives the film its comedic spine and true soul as they approach each other warily, never quite sure of the other’s true intentions. Watching the actresses together as their characters establish a begrudging mutual respect and something like friendship, such as in a sequence on a private jet that skillfully slides from talking to fighting, is a thing of pure joy.
Statham turns both the movie and his own tough-guy persona upside down every time he comes onscreen. His rants extolling his own accomplishments as an agent are marvels for their lunatic intensity. It will be interesting to see if there is any residual shine from this role for him down the line, whether it will become slightly more difficult for audiences to accept his action roles without a chuckle.
Amid Byrne’s haughty disdain, animal prints and piled-high hair, Statham’s too-much-ness and Hart’s low-key delivery, McCarthy is sometimes relegated to being the straight one in her own starring vehicle. But she makes it work by the subtle emotional shading she brings to the role.
Susan is not an Inspector Clouseau-style bungler, because any mistakes she makes are ones of inexperience, not incompetence. When she wins a fight or otherwise advances her mission there is an impulse to cheer not just for the plot advancement but for character, for her.
The film isn’t a full-on spoof of spy movies in the way of the “Austin Powers” pictures or the many other riffs on James Bond. It isn’t all that invested in its espionage plot or action mechanics beyond motivation to bring this odd assortment of characters together and keep them moving from one swank-looking locale to the next. As it all falls into place for the finale, it should probably feel more amplified than it does — it’s a missing nuclear device after all — but Feig’s expert modulation of the comedy and the obvious delight of his crack cast manage to skate right past such concerns.
“Spy” may not be a great movie, but it is great fun. And at times it will have you wondering if there’s that much of a difference.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, violence and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In wide release