The evolution of the Melissa McCarthy comedy has stumbled ahead somewhat with “Spy,” a spook spoof in which the joke, for once, is not that McCarthy is a bumbling lout (see: “Tammy”), but rather than she’s secretly, perhaps even to her, incredibly good at her job.
In this case she’s at the CIA, running support on the microphone side of field agents’ earpieces. Specifically, in the opening, we have agent Jude Law doing his best full-of-himself James Bond impression, all insouciant swagger and action-hero fisticuffs, made possibly only through McCarthy’s directions on how to escape a villain-mansion.
It’s a role they both downplay: Out in the field, they all chuckle, can you imagine how she’d fare?
That lasts until tragedy befalls the field agent, and the knowledge that agents’ identities have been compromised leads the anonymous basement jockey — who fared quite nicely, it turns out, during her combat training years earlier — to venture into the field, in Europe, certain that she will be completely anonymous. The laughs come from the blunt vulgarity of director Paul Feig’s script; he also worked on McCarthy pics “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat,” which rhymes a bit with the CIA setup here.
Perhaps alone right now among stars of her caliber, McCarthy winds up getting picked on in her roles; “Spy” goes to that well several times, naming everything about her (clothes, word choice, inexperience, single-ness) without touching on her size, tactfully. And it hardly has to, for once she starts kicking the asses of would-be Euroscum terrorists and their lackeys, her physical comedy says all it needs to with every goon she throws onto the body pile.
“Spy” celebrates the nebbishes who can yank a trigger when given a chance. McCarthy has an ally in a fellow basement agent, Miranda Hart, the Jeff to McCarthy’s Mutt, just as outsider-librarian nerdy. Everyone else is content to dump on her: the CIA deputy director, a no-nonsense Allison Janney, who continues to feed McCarthy a diet of false identities seemingly pulled from the church bake-sale corners of Midwestern Facebook. Jason Statham is the chauvinistic field agent sent to remind McCarthy constantly that he earned his bona fides by having his arm torn off and reattached, or by ingesting hundreds of poisons in an underground poison-taking ring.
The casting masterstroke, though, is brittle evildoer Rose Byrne, ostensibly in a classic villain role but far too funny to stay mad at. Like Kristen Wiig and Sandra Bullock before her, Byrne gives McCarthy a pucker-tight presence to play against, with a dollop of insouciant wickedness.
Feig likes to let his actors riff and to let God and his editors sort out the takes into a coherent film. True to form, “Spy” feels loose throughout, full of jokes you can tell just flew off the top of someone’s head and setups that require a detour from reality to make remotely plausible. But it’s really no more of a cartoon than the typical Bond film that it sends up even as it celebrates.
The opening credits, in a sequence ripped straight from the Bond aesthetic, announce that it’s a comedy only in how ultra-seriously it’s taking itself. The tone can’t hold to the utterly straight-faced — it’s not “Airplane” — but works to make its central premise believable, that gentle desk-bound Jude Law fangirl Melissa McCarthy is the spy America needs now, to save us from rogue nukes.
It has a funny ring to it, made all the more so when she starts cracking skulls.