The ungainly Hollywood hybrid commonly referred to as the “action-comedy” has often struck me as one of the scourges of mainstream American movies. Not because its two generic modes are mutually exclusive — they certainly aren’t, as “Beverly Hills Cop,” “21 Jump Street” and the collected works of Edgar Wright exist to remind us. But it takes rare skill, luck and razor-sharp timing to ensure that those modes nourish and amplify each other, rather than clashing and undermining each other to the point of collapse. (See: “Snatched,” “Rough Night,” “Baywatch.” Except don’t.)
“The Spy Who Dumped Me,” a fast, funny Europe-trotting buddy caper starring Mila Kunis and a superb Kate McKinnon as extremely amateur secret agents, doesn’t perfect this tricky alchemy — far from it. To say it’s all over the place, a frenzied collection of hits and misses, is to both capture its shortcomings and deliver a fairly cogent plot summary. But as directed by Susanna Fogel (“Life Partners”) from a script she wrote with David Iserson, the movie also has a playfully vicious screwball energy that consistently locates the violence in every joke, the humor in every kill. Even when the action overwhelms the comedy, as it eventually does, the two make surprisingly amiable bedfellows.
The same could be said for Audrey (Kunis) and Morgan (McKinnon), two laid-back underachievers whose close friendship is the movie’s matter-of-fact, not-so-secret weapon. When we first meet Audrey, a Los Angeles grocery-store clerk, she has just been unceremoniously e-dumped by her boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux). There to console her, as always, is Morgan, an aspiring actress who might just as well be called Kate, given that her character is basically a thin, pliable shell for McKinnon and her joyously unbridled comic id.
What Audrey and Morgan don’t realize until too late is that Drew, who says he works in public radio, is a deadly CIA operative. The audience learns this information firsthand when Drew takes down a bunch of nameless targets in a Lithuanian open-air market, in a frenzied, violent action sequence — complemented by bone-crunching sound design — that telegraphs the brutality of what’s to come.
Within short order, Drew himself will be dead, gunned down in front of Audrey, who obeys his dying words and jets off to Vienna so she can ensure delivery of a particularly perfunctory MacGuffin. She is accompanied and spurred onward by Morgan, who hurls herself into the world of jetsetting, gun-toting espionage with the maniacal determination of a woman who has at long last discovered her calling.
The two besties soon find themselves on the run from the usual alphabet soup of intelligence agencies and undercover hostiles, but even as the backdrops keep shifting, from Vienna to Paris to Berlin, it’s McKinnon’s mercurial intelligence that keeps the proceedings off-balance. The key to her marvelously uninhibited performance, repurposing a technique she has deployed on “Saturday Night Live” and elsewhere, is that she treats Morgan’s international-woman-of-mystery dreams as they deserve to be treated, as both completely serious and utterly ridiculous.
[McKinnon] treats Morgan’s international-woman-of-mystery dreams as they deserve to be treated, as both completely serious and utterly ridiculous.
And somehow, amid all the chaotic shenanigans and semi-improvised outbursts, she manages to endow her character — a sex-positive feminist, an ugly-American tourist and an irrepressible showboat with glancing self-esteem issues — with a bizarre psychological coherence. Even as you believe nothing that’s going on in this movie, you somehow believe almost everything Morgan is doing, whether she’s rambling in excellent (if nonsensical) French or dishing about her past love affair with Edward Snowden.
Kunis, a spry performer in past comedies (“Bad Moms,” “Friends With Benefits,” “Jupiter Ascending”), is overmatched here and knows it, but she slips into the straight-woman role with affable ease. Audrey may face the prospect of a spy career with less suicidal zaniness and more reluctance than Morgan does, but her surprising knack for the job — those hours spent playing video games come in handy — is a rewarding development in a movie that knows better than to overplay the character dynamics. Audrey’s moment of self-realization is just affecting enough.
It also nicely serves the movie’s underlying point, which is that international spydom, no less than any other professional field, can be a demoralizing cesspool of male chauvinism. A handsome, arrogant MI6 agent named Sebastian initially seems like an embodiment of that toxic element, a perception that is later shrewdly undermined by the script and by Sam Heughan’s sly performance in the role.
In other words, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” wears its gender politics and its paean to female friendship with gratifying lightness, and Fogel keeps the action moving too briskly for even the missteps to leave skid marks. The mind registers, but quickly forgets, the obligatory nods to the gross-out comedy playbook: the diarrhea attacks, the penile closeups. More apt to linger are the bright spots in the supporting cast: Hasan Minhaj as Sebastian’s insufferable partner, Ivanna Sakhno as some sort of spectacularly evil-eyed assassin-gymnast-fashion-model, Gillian Anderson as a severe MI6 chief whom Morgan extols as “the Beyoncé of the government.”
That line might not send you into convulsions of laughter, on-screen or on paper, but McKinnon somehow makes it sing. To say that “The Spy Who Dumped Me” wouldn’t amount to much without her is a glass-half-full pronouncement, and a reminder that sometimes, in the face of erratic material, an actor’s resourcefulness can shine all the more impressively. The climactic set-piece, involving sharp blades and swinging trapezes, has no real business working — until McKinnon uncorks a wide-eyed, show-must-go-on lunacy worthy of Lucille Ball. It’s no spoiler to report that she kills.
‘The Spy Who Dumped Me’
Rating: R, for violence, language throughout, some crude sexual material and graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: In general release