AUSTIN – When “Bridesmaids” was in production, I visited the set, and it seemed to me that the collaborators working on the film were flying happily under the radar, no pressure on them beyond whatever pressure they put on themselves. When they brought the film to SXSW for a “work-in-progress” screening, it absolutely destroyed the audience, and Universal suddenly realized what a hit they had on their hands.
Seeing Paul Feig onstage last Sunday at the Paramount to introduce his new film as a writer/director, I was struck by how far he's come even since I met him on the set of “Unaccompanied Minors.” He's always been wildly funny and very smart, and if you haven't read his book, “Superstud,” you are doing it wrong. It is a tremendous piece of writing. His work on “Freaks & Geeks” is also beautiful and nuanced. But with “Bridesmaids,” he was launched into that rarefied A-list territory, and he cemented it by following that film with another giant hit, “The Heat,” written by Katie Dippold, who is now his co-writer on “Ghostbusters.”
“Spy,” though, is pure Feig. He wrote and directed it, and he seems to have a genuine fondness for the tropes of the spy film. There is a giddy sense of glee that runs through most of this movie, making it feel like Feig can barely contain himself with all of the things he wants to do and show you in the movie. He and Melissa McCarthy are quickly developing one of those movie relationships you see sometimes, an actor and a filmmaker recognizing something in one other and then repeatedly collaborating, trying new things each time. While there is certainly some of the same personality you would expect from Melissa McCarthy, there are also plenty of things she gets to do here that we've never seen from her before. There's a sweetness to the way she feels about the agent she supports, and over the course of the film, we see an actual change in her. It's nice writing, and McCarthy plays all of it well, a nice refutation of the idea that she only does “one thing” so far in her films.
“Spy” is especially winning in terms of casting. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, an agent and analyst for the CIA who is teamed with Bradley Fine (Jude Law), who seems to have come out of a Build-Your-Own-James-Bond kit. She's the one watching operations from thousands of miles away in a basement office watching Fine on a monitor and advising him. She has a hopeless crush on Fine, but she's well aware that he does not feel the same way. When he is murdered in the field by Reyna (Rose Byrne), the daughter of an international terrorist who is looking to sell a nuke to the highest bidder, Susan ends up getting her first real field assignment. Reyna says she knows the identity of all of the field agents, making the unlikely Susan into the agency's best chance for success. Both Byrne and Law know that the key to making their characters work is to play them straight, like they're in a real Bond film that just happens to have collided with this strange lunatic other movie that Feig is making, and because they are so perfectly cast, it sets the stage for McCarthy perfectly.
Have I mentioned yet that Jason Statham is very funny in this film? Because he is, and no one is more shocked by that than I am. He plays a heightened version of the persona he typically plays, and I can almost picture Feig off-camera during much of the film, shouting lines at Statham to try. Statham attacks a joke the way he attacks a fight scene, and that uber-seriousness only makes it funnier. He's also a fairly adept physical performer anyway, so it shouldn't be a shock that he can take a fall or sell a gag. Even funnier than Statham is Peter Serafinowicz, finally given a role in a big broad mainstream comedy that should introduce him to a much bigger audience than ever before. I think he's one of the funniest people working right now, and his role here is an interesting one. He plays an italian agent named Aldo, and from the moment they meet, he can't keep his hands off of McCarthy. Instead of playing the only joke in the film as “look how fat she is,” the scenes with Aldo treat her as a sexual being, and it's a choice that makes the film more interesting. Serafinowicz is a delightful leech, not something every actor can pull off, and he continues to find new beats to play all the way up to the film's closing credits.
Feig's strengths as a director are more focused on the performances than the action, but he's got good ideas. It's a case of this feeling like a mix of new muscles and old in play, and that's where his fondness for the spy genre helps. He's going to need to get comfortable with this kind of big action mayhem for “Ghostbusters,” so I'm glad “Spy” serves as a warm-up for him. It's clear that character is still what drives Feig's sense of humor and it's what he has a gift for as a director. The best moments in “Spy” are when Byrne or McCarthy or Statham or Jude Law or Bobby Cannavale or Allison Janney or 50 Cent (seriously) or Miranda Hart or Serafinowicz are just allowed to play, and Feig seems more than willing to follow a laugh with some weird digressions. Because it's more of a genre exercise than anything, “Spy” feels a little slight, but it should be another major hit for Feig and McCarthy, who are building one of those comedy collaborations that seems to be yielding strong returns every time out. It would not shock me at all to see Susan Cooper back in the field a few years down the road. I would hope, though, that if they do make another one, Feig creates an adversary who is as interesting as his leads. The best Bond films are the ones with a bad guy who is memorably written and performed, and that would have made the difference between making “Spy” enjoyable and genuinely great.