Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Alternate Title:  Earning the Asshole Badge

One sentence synopsis:     A CIA analyst is converted into a field agent after her partner is murdered by an arms dealer plotting to sell nuclear weapons to the highest bidder.

Things Havoc liked:  I don't see a huge number of comedies, if only because most comedies look insipid when viewed only from trailers. In consequence, I've not seen a lot of Melissa McCarthy's work, though like everyone else who's into film, I do know of her at the very least. What I know is not terribly flattering, as McCarthy seems to be trying to position herself as a female Danny McBride, a fat, loud asshole, who gets a bunch of laughs by virtue of acting like an unapologetic shithead to everyone in sight. Why this schtick is regarded as funny is beyond me, as I deal with enough assholes in my regular life to go and seek them out in a setting that, by the nature of film, will glamorize their assholery and hold them up as a shining example due to some mitigating factor, competence perhaps, or even just "telling it like it is". I cannot, as a rule, stand media cored around this sort of concept, one of the primary reasons why I could never watch House, but even with my most deeply-held prejudices, there are always exceptions. And with a week to kill before the launch of Jurassic World, which by the time of the writing of this review I should have already seen and be in mid-production of the review for, I opted this week to follow the recommendation of my sister, who saw this film in the company of both our mother and our octogenarian grandmother, and professed that not only did she enjoy herself, so did everyone else. My grandmother has... eclectic tastes at times, but given this report, I felt it behooved me to see what was going on, to see, if nothing else, if they had found a way to make me tolerate an archetype I roundly despise.

Well not to put too fine a point on it, but yes, yes they did.

How did they accomplish this miracle, you may be asking? Well they used one of the oldest tricks in the storyteller's book. If you're having trouble getting the audience to sympathize with an unlikeable character, you really have two options: either soften the character, or make everyone around them worse. Not content with doing things by half measures, experienced McCarthy-collaborator Paul Feig, director of this film as well as Bridesmaids and The Heat, decided this time to take the writer's job on as well and produced a script that does both. Far from being the customary loud-mouthed asshole, McCarthy's character, Susan Cooper, is established as being one small step away from a middle-aged cat lady (this joke is made explicitly and at length), a competent desk agent for the CIA who manages to disguise her greater ambitions under a mousy exterior, and who silently pines for her field-partner, super-spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Thrust into the role of field agent after Fine's murder and a contrivance concerning the leak of other agents' identities, McCarthy spends the first half of the movie or so alternately flustered or completely over her head, only easing into her customary abrasive personality over the course of the film. Not only is this waaaaaay more tolerable than spending the entire movie in the company of someone I'd rather shoot dead and bury in the desert, it also serves to give her a reason for being an insulting prick, as she is more or less forced to act this way in order to survive amidst cutthroats, killers, terrorists, and men with more testosterone than brains. What's more, to my (and seemingly everyone else's) surprise, McCarthy actually pulls off both sides of this character, convincingly appearing as a lovelorn loser as well as an ass-kicking super-spy. It probably helps that I don't have a lot of experience with her films, and thus don't automatically cringe when I see her face, but it's notable regardless, especially considering how many schtick comedians are consistently unable to operate outside their narrow repertoire (I'm looking at you, Will Ferrell).

But the real strength of Spy is the second element of the modifications that Feig made to the formula this time round, specifically the act of surrounding McCarthy with a bevy of gargantuan, staggering assholes, ones so much worse than she could possibly be that it becomes cathartically enjoyable to see McCarthy inflict herself upon them. One such asshole is Jason Statham, playing rogue super-spy Rick Ford in a very intentional send-up to other Jason Statham roles, a hyper-masculine, dim-witted, clenched-teeth badass-in-name-only, whose tales of his legendary awesomeness become more and more increasingly insane ("I once re-attached my severed arm with my other severed arm!") as the movie goes on. I've always admired Statham, even in bad movies, but he's flat out hilarious this time, playing a role that none of his Expendables cast-mates would ever dare try to pull off, a role that lampoons and heaps mockery upon every other thing he's done in his entire career. Only slightly less over-the-top is X-men First Class' Rose Byrne, playing the daughter of a Bulgarian warlord whom McCarthy must surveil in order to locate the MacGuffin that drives the plot. Byrne's character is a pastiche of the most arrogant form of Eurotrash imaginable, a thoroughly loathsome bitch whose conceit is so towering that McCarthy swinging in on a wrecking ball to demolish the entire edifice in classic fashion actually forms some of the best scenes in the entire movie. Smaller roles go to West Wing's Allison Janney, playing McCarthy's deadpan boss, to Phantom Menace's Peter Serafinowicz, playing a raunchy Italian agent inflicted on McCarthy throughout the film, and to British standup comedian Miranda Hart, playing McCarthy's friend, the only CIA agent in existence even more hapless than McCarthy herself. The movie also features a whole series of cameos, mostly well-executed, including one that serves to prove that my initial impressions from Escape Plan were correct, and 50 Cent is simply incapable of acting in any form.

Things Havoc disliked: The plot is utterly forgettable in a movie like this, which I don't mind generally, except when it starts to get in the way of the film, which unfortunately, here, it does. It's not that the plot is over-complex, though it verges on it, with multiple betrayals and side-switchings on the part of assorted characters, some of whom don't seem to have anything to do with anything whatsoever (Firefly's Morena Baccarin being the biggest offender here). The primary issue though is that the plot seems to take itself seriously and then not seriously almost at random, going to rather elaborate lengths to arrange McCarthy's entrance into fieldwork only to suddenly and conveniently forget what she's supposed to be doing and what the stated consequences of performing or not performing certain actions were established as being. As before, I don't mind when a movie dispenses with the unimportant crap and gets to the fun part, but you can't do that sort of thing by halves. Either the plot matters or it does not, and discarding the plot once McCarthy suddenly finds her normal voice only serves to generate flashbacks in my mind to McCarthy's bad old habits of playing characters who got away with murder purely because they were loud and obnoxious.

But the worse sin is that of McCarthy's character itself, and this is no fault of McCarthy but of the movie she finds herself in. Her character is quite effectively established as being a retiring, shy sort, and McCarthy can of course play a loud, abrasive asshole with the best of them. What the movie doesn't handle well is the transition between these two things, by which I mean there is no transition whatsoever. McCarthy finds herself in a situation that seems to warrant being a giant dick, and simply becomes one. There's no trace of hesitation or awkwardness to her as she suddenly metamorphs into something previously entirely alien to her entire experience, and even in a broad comedy, that's a lot to swallow. Yes, the movie does pre-establish that there's probably more to her than meets the eye from the get go (a sequence wherein McCarthy has to explain the footage of her beating the crap out of instructors and trainees alike in her training courses from ten years earlier is handled fairly well), and I do indeed tend to prefer it when movies don't belabor points we already know. But something has to be there for the audience to follow the character at all, and the lack thereof not only robs us of the chance for a truly epic moment of cathartic joy, customary when a demure character finally has too much and snaps into a nuclear rage, but also leaves us to wonder (as several of the characters do) just why the hell McCarthy was such milquetoast in the first place if this sort of thing was not only inside her the entire time, but apparently readily accessible for whenever she needed to suddenly tear a pretentious asshole into sobbing ribbons.

Final thoughts:   Like Hercules or Fast & Furious 7 before it, Spy is manifestly not a great movie, but it is a considerably better film than I, and I would guess many others, had previously imagined possible, a movie that finally figures out just how to frame someone like McCarthy in a way that will actually appeal to, instead of repelling, large sections of its audience. A throwaway plot, clunky construction, and suspect characterization of the main character do not do the movie justice, but they equally do not prevent it from actually being funny, something a lot of asshole-comedies, including many of McCarthy's, have had trouble with in the past. I wouldn't say that it somehow flash-converted me into a fan of hers, but all I've ever asked of this project is to be allowed to see movies that I can enjoy the act of watching. And given that Spy offered me that much, if little more, what standing have I to really complain?

Here's to hoping that McCarthy and her directors learn the right lesson from the success of this, reasonably good movie. I meanwhile, have to go and see if someone else has learned the lessons of several other, entirely terrible ones.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  Clever girl...

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