[Review] - Spy

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Paul Feig's filmography is a mixed bag for me. I seem to be one of the few that thought Bridesmaids was terrible, however I have become quite enamored with The Heat since it's release. Since my screening of Spy, I've been trying to work out how I feel about it. Which, for a comedy, is not usually a good sign. With comedies, it tends to be an in-the-moment reaction. You are either laughing, or you're not. And I remember laughing during Spy. Not throughout, but certainly at times. On reflection, the film has left me confused as to my opinion of it.

At times, it was an enjoyable film, with some solid laughs and a surprising amount of action choreography. It is also a crass, vulgar film that never lands a joke quite as well as it thinks it does, and spends so much time convincing itself that it isn't a James Bond spoof that it fails to realize that it is entirely a James Bond spoof. The end result is a uneven mixture of a movie that hides its inadequacies behind a very likable cast, and hides its lack of intellectual humour behind run-too-long sequences of curse words and reaction shots.

Hit the jump for the review, which does not contain spoilers. Because sometimes I like to change things up.

I think that my biggest issue with Spy that, more often than not, it goes for an easy laugh rather than building a joke. A joke doesn't have to be smart to be intellectual, but a joke should require some work on the part of the audience member to "get" it. And Feig's script (and the substantial amount of improv from it's so inclined cast members) too often fills in the gaps with rambling non sequiturs that include little more than variations on the word "fuck." And while that sort of thing is funny once, a movie built on that gets tiring and progressively less funny. part of this might be due to Feig's having written the action side of the script first, and then went back and filled in the humour later. It is obvious at times that he just didn't have a joke for a moment, so he just let McCarthy go off on a tangent or knocked her over and hoped that covered the bases. The script, with exceptions, isn't built to set up jokes, the jokes are laid over it, like a tarp over a flower bed (for instance, a running joke about vermin infestation fails to produce a single laugh)

It also doesn't help that 98% of the humour is toilet and vulgar, or at the very least crass. When I think back to my favourite comedies (Naked Gun, Ghostbusters, Christmas Vacation), they didn't have to lean on that level of vulgarity and crassness in order to find their laughs. But, I also look to current favourites like Archer, Veep and Silicon Valley, who build their comedy off dick jokes and insults, and I'm left to wonder why I'm on the floor with them, and Spy at best managed to illicit a chuckle. And the best explanation I can come up with is that all those examples play things one hundred percent straight. There is no knowingness in their humour, and thus is feels like it is coming from a genuine place and is earned. Spy is too self aware. the first frame of the film, with Jude Law playing the Bond expy super spy Bradley Fine is dripping with such awareness that he's playing a spoof, it drove me out of the movie. It wasn't until the opening credits had passed that I was able to settle back in. Law and Allison Janney spend their entire roles in the film resting on the cusp of mugging.

With that in mind, it might not surprise you to learn that the two roles I felt were most successful were those played by Rose Byrne and Jason Statham, expressly because while they were given no less extreme and absurd things to say, they alone in the film were playing things straight. Byrne saves the film, coming into it in the second act, and that's when it feels like the film really gets going. She brings a dynamic to the film that was missing, much as she was the one role in Bridesmaids that I felt worked, but was under used. Feig recognizes her comedic strengths and gives them room for expression here. And Statham is playing a more extreme version of the archetype set in place by Clouseau or Frank Drebin here, completely incompetent but completely unaware, and thus acting as though he were the best at what he does. I would have watched a whole movie of his bumbling, but he gets relegated to a third tier (but very well used) role here.

McCarthy is a serviceable lead, but I feel that any weakness in her performance is the fault of Feig's script rather than McCarthy's ability. As a comedian, she works far better as part of an ensemble, or at least a pair, from which she can feed off and react to. Which is why the first act feels entirely different to the second and third, as she spends most of the first act alone. It is only once she is in constant company with the likes of Byrne, Miranda Hart (hopefully US audiences will now come to know what UK audiences have known for years about Hart) and the scene stealing Peter Serafinowicz. But more than that, Feif is short selling McCarthy's abilities. Anyone who has seen St. Vincent, or even the even worse Identity Thief knows that McCarthy is a better actor than Feig has given her material for. She can handle the dramatic material, and this film has no time for that. Yet more evidence that despite claims, it is a spoof, as there isn't a single quite emotional moment or a time during the film when McCarthy can be anything other than a 21st century Stooge. Because it doesn't seem fair that she be the lead in the movie, but be expected just to do prat falls for two hours.

If we take Feig at his words, and that this isn't meant to be a spoof (which it is) but a genuine example of the spy movie genre, that happens to be comedic, then it is a failure of a spy film. The plot is full of holes, the progress is made through chance and circumstance and some fairly unbelievable behaviours on the part of characters. The action pieces are impressive, especially a knife fight in a hotel kitchen. But if the spy elements were meant to be the bricks and the comedy the mortar, than this film is a crumbling ruin. Recurring elements like McCarthy's character being into cake go nowhere and add nothing, while Morena Baccarin shows up for two ill-explained scenes that are apparently integral to the plot but aren't explained well enough to be anything other than a distraction. And, the various twists and turns of the third act are so obvious that they can be spotted in the first, while still being underdeveloped and tacky. In the end, Spy isn't a movie with lasting power, unlikely to make an impact on either genre in any substantive way. The best that can be hoped is that several of the film's actors use it as a step-stone into different roles than they are currently used to, or more high profile ones than they are getting.

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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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