There are two things I hate in this world. Actually, there are millions. But somewhere near the top of my hate hierarchy, right above war and right below “Serving fruit for dessert,” there are two, and they are Melissa McCarthy’s latest movies. Seriously, put Tammy or Identity Thief on and watch me go unconscious in 60 seconds flat. So it was with a considerable degree of trepidation that I traveled to Times Square last week (the best place in New York to catch a Broadway show/airborne disease) for a screening of Spy. I was chatty and unbearable, until about ten minutes in, when I noticed something truly strange. Nearly everyone in that 500-person theater—a stunningly diverse audience of misanthropes, long-term depressives, and sad sacks—was laughing. I mean really laughing. So say what you will (but please, in a 100 words or less) but I’m bound to believe that the inauspicious Spy will end up as one of the funniest, smartest movies this summer.
The premise for Spy is anything but good, which makes the story’s success all the more remarkable. Melissa McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a timorous if talented CIA agent, working under Match.com model Bradley Fine (Jude Law). In just the first ten minutes, someone makes a fat joke, a kind man gets violently killed, and a large rat poops on a cake. “Is this the movie?” you sigh to yourself, followed by, “F*ck I want a slice of that cake.” You don’t get the corner piece, but what you do get is a really sharp script, whose intelligence only deepens as the story progresses. Once Melissa becomes a field agent, her one-liners become effortlessly nasty and brilliant (“Did they make you dress like a sexy dolphin trainer?” she asks a befuddled Rose Byrne). Sure, it’s familiar territory for Melissa, but she murders it. And she’s not alone. Miranda Hart is also undeniably great, and Rose Byrne lifts considerable comedic weight as a brutal evil-doer with an equally brutal half-ponytail.
It’s hard to find quality directors out there like Feig who have a real knack for comedy writing and a real respect for comedy actors. A quick overview of some of the big comedies this year—The Wedding Ringer, Get Hard, Ted 2—shows that we still have a voracious appetite for traditional viciousness, bears that ejaculate, and hating the gays. That doesn’t mean Feig shies away from jokes about weight or sexuality or tuff stuff. On the contrary, he confronts them, with a rare brain-and-heart combination that maybe four people have. If there’s one thing that that Spy can teach us (and, honestly, I’m putting the limit at one, this is a spy-action-comedy, guys), it’s that comedy can kill without creating a crime scene.
Still, it’s not just the one-liners that drives Spy forward, it’s the super-smart subtext hiding beneath the movie’s super-stupid surface. I mean, never have I seen a movie I thought could appeal both to the joyful morons I went to high school with and these nice weirdos from college. Melissa McCarthy spends a good portion of the movie as a desk-bound CIA agent, subject to the patronizing whims of her mostly male superiors. Even when she’s finally out in the field, her directors can’t quite see past her butt ‘n vagina, and dress her like a Midwestern Mom-lady obsessed with candles/cats/white power.
It’s painful to watch, but over time, McCarthy comes into her own voice, her own body, and her own Lord & Taylor wardrobe (as Rose Byrne describes it: She looks like she’s a member of “a jazz orchestra”). McCarthy is a great comedian, but also–total surprise–a super solid action hero. Reader, fear not: Spy isn’t some kind of Go Girl!!! Girl Scouts empowerment ad. It’s just the actually human, actually feminist, story of a woman learning what it takes to grow up, then doing it.
Spy obviously passes the Bechdel test, but does it without feeling forced, or prosthetic, or totally destroying its male characters (outside of the dozen or so Melissa actually kills, whoops maybe strike this sentence). Compare it to say, The Other Woman, or Gone Girl, which several respectable-enough critics actually dared to call feminist. No, Tod Van Der Werff, and ten other Facebook friends I’d love to call out publicly: female violence does not equal female empowerment. There’s honestly not much of a relationship. What makes Spy such a feminist (human) story isn’t that it kills off its bad male characters—it’s that it doesn’t place their blathering, chiseled faces smack dab at the story center. Melissa is, yes, a plus-sized action hero, but she’s also a sexual one, something that Hollywood seems to have only put together five minutes ago, and probably already forgot.
Not to worry, Spy isn’t perfect movie, and there’s plenty to be petulant about. Some of the jokes truly fart out, include a bizarre date-rape (?) sequence at the end that actually ruined everything. And the sum total of minorities in this movie include: a mumbling Latino gardener, a black rapper and a handful of extras. Combined, 50 Cent and the gardener have maybe ten lines total, only half of them are in English, only one of them I liked, and I think I’m just saying that for sentence structure. To be fair, there’s an I-guess-level of satire here, and it’s not like Spy is any worse than most Hollywood movies on this issue. But it’s a painful oversight in a movie that otherwise worked so hard to think, so that we didn’t have to.
By and large, you don’t. And it’s so great, and so rare, to go and thoughtlessly enjoy a story that punches so hard without breaking every bone. Spy, a summer action-comedy, might have been born in a lowly genre manger. But it transcends its crappy origin story simply by virtue of its character. I’m not afraid of Melissa McCarthy movies anymore. You shouldn’t be, either.
Heather Dockray is a writer and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.