A tale of two McCarthys

Scorsese casts Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in all his movies, Feig casts Melissa McCarthy. There really is a world of difference here. Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox.

At Spy’s world premier in May, star Jason Statham called writer/director Paul Feig “The Scorsese of comedy.” To really understand the gravity of this comment, you have to take the time to watch all those classic Scorsese/Statham collaborations. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Spy stars Feig’s muse, Melissa McCarthy, as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who works with Bradley Fine (Jude Law), watching his back through missions via satellite and drone and keeping him safe. Despite her best efforts, Fine is killed early in the film by Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), doughter of a multi-national terrorist kingpin with a tactical nuke for sale. Cooper gets her chance to prove her mettle in the field tracking Boyanov, since she knows all active operatives by name and face. Rick Ford (Statham) scoffs at the decision, and tails her through her reconnaissance mission.

At the start, it’s a clever spy satire brought down by more of the same from McCarthy. The Bond aesthetics are on point, and Ford and Boyanov are perfect spoofs of the stereotypical spy movie hero and villain, respectively.

Unfortuantely, McCarthy is playing the same boring character she has been for two or three movies running. She’s insecure and looked over because of her appearance, and most of her sketches revolve around her being looked over or fat-shamed when she is noticed.

Because casting her as the exact same character simply wasn’t enough, Feig writes her into the exact same scenes. She’s got the projectile vomit gag again. And the unexpected penis gag. And that scene where a new hairdo and a fancy dress make all the boys forget about her morbid obesity. It’s all there, and it’s all just as uninteresting as the first time you saw it.

Then, suddenly, Cooper infiltrates Boyanov’s operation by taking on the filth-spewing, ultra-aggressive character McCarthy earned her fame with in Bridesmaids, and the movie takes off. She’s as perfect in the role as she was four years ago, and this movie is proof positive that she should abandon insecurity driven roles. Or get someone to make a movie about one of her other characters.

Byrne is so immersed in her character through the entire movie it’s as if she’s breathing a different kind of air. Just the look on her face, that you-can’t-sit-with-us scowl, is an impressive bit of acting.

With McCarthy finally back in her funny character, the rest of Spy falls into place. Statham must pay for his blasphemy, but he, Law and Byrne are clearly having a blast working for Feig. Most of Statham’s scenes revolve around outrageous boasts about past missions, and they all stay funny because of how straight a face he keeps. Statham is mocking himself as much as he is Pierce Brosnan or Sean Connery, and he loves every minute of it.

But it’s Byrne that absolutely steals the show. She’s vulgar and proper at the same time, condescending and entitled and perfectly, deliriously evil and so drop-dead sexy it hurts. Hollywood has a hard-on for McCarthy and she’s getting most of the praise, but this is Byrne’s movie.

The movie itself largely rises above its performances. Comedies are usually actor-driven, but Spy is a satire, and the entire thing is an elaborate joke. It’s a funny one, sure to mean the most to old Bond and action movie fans. The mark of good comedy is that it makes viewers think about things in a different way, and Spy subverts the genre’s tropes in clever, subtle ways that are sure to tickle the brain, all while remaining an effective espionage thriller. It’s subtly a wonderfully constructed film.

I got a little tired during the movie of saying, “Yeah Feig, you’re a feminist. I get it.” It reverses most of its roles — Cooper is the hero, Boyanov is the villain, Fine is the damsel in distress — and it really, really wants you to notice the reversal. Someone tries to assasinate Boyanov with a roofie at one point. There’s a character, Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz), who’s entire purpose is tormenting Cooper with gross-out come-ons. I’m a feminist too, but I don’t necessarily want my social justice delivered via blockbuster.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. It isn’t rocket science — if you don’t know what you want, get away from the bar. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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