SXSW Review: SPY

Melissa McCarthy finally gets the role she deserves, and she doesn't squander it. (Not for nothing: this is also true of Jason Statham.)

There's a lot more to Melissa McCarthy than the raunchy, bumbling trucker act she's been putting on since Bridesmaids, something Gilmore Girls fans have known for years, and with Spy, the rest of the world will know it, too. 

Paul Feig delivers our second big-budget spy spoof of 2015, but unlike the otherwise excellent KingsmanSpy does not suffer from an exclusively, overwhelmingly male point of view. Here is a spy I could learn to love: Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is a CIA agent who's been desked since her training days, working as the point person for her mentor, Jude Law's Agent Fine. Crushing hard on her dashing superior, she's content to direct him through his earpiece while he gets all of the field action - until she sees him killed by an enemy agent, played by the always great and rarely better Rose Byrne, and learns that Byrne's Rayna Boyanov is privy to the identities of every field agent currently working out of Langley. The CIA needs someone invisible to track down Fine's killer - and the nuclear bomb she's hoping to sell to the highest bidder - and who's more invisible than sweet, unassuming Susan Cooper?

There's a way this movie could go: the way most Melissa McCarthy movies tend to go, in fact. Bumbling could ensue, fat jokes might arise. But that's not where Spy is headed. Turns out, Susan Cooper is a damn fine agent - finer than Fine, actually. She's been sacrificing her own advancement to further his, but once she hits the field, it's clear that there's nowhere she belongs more. McCarthy is a bona fide badass in this film, quick-thinking, tough, with superhero reflexes and a rapid-fire ability to reinvent her cover when the circumstances call for it.

As for fat jokes, there are none. There's a meta component to the dowdy, unappealing disguises Cooper is saddled with, as if the CIA can't imagine that a woman who looks like Cooper could ever convincingly pull off posh and sexy, a mistake Hollywood has been making for years with the gorgeous McCarthy. But Cooper never doubts her own appeal, and she's not the only character in Spy who sees it. And when it comes time for her to pull off posh and sexy, she does so and then some.

The brightest delight of Spy is the perfect battle between Cooper and Boyanov, with McCarthy and Byrne giving the sort of revolving odd couple chemistry that works so well with Broad City's Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Like Abbie and Ilana, the straight man and the clown alternate within every scene between Susan and Rayna, with McCarthy's no-nonsense savvy ultimately winning out against Byrne's foul-mouthed princess vibe. And the supporting cast is nearly as strong: Bobby Cannavale is unsurprisingly terrific as the big bad, and Nighty Night's Miranda Hart is a goofy, gangly joy as Cooper's supportive co-worker and friend, Nancy. 

And a sure point of glee for the audience will be Jason Statham as agent-gone-rogue Rick Ford, who bucks authority in an outrage when Cooper is sent to Budapest on her mission. You want bumbling? Here's your bumbling. All of Statham's considerable charisma is directed toward making Ford hilariously useless while also alarmingly cocksure. Ford talks big - crazy big - but when it comes time for action, he's a perennial screw-up. In that way, he's sort of the opposite of the small-talk, big-action Cooper, whom everyone - even the audience - underestimates until the chips are down and she's still on top.

Yes, Statham, Law and Cannavale are all great, and Peter Serafinowicz is a comedy dream as a sleazy European agent who's got it bad for Cooper's bod, but make no mistake: this is the ladies' movie. There are so many complete bosses here, from McCarthy and Byrne and Janney and Hart to Morena Baccarin as the sort of stunning spy Cooper wishes she could be and Nargis Fakhri as an enemy agent whose fight scene with McCarthy had the audience gasping and cheering. 

Feig is the only credited writer on Spy's IMDb, but he called out Katie Dippold - who wrote The Heat, many eps of Parks and Recreation and Feig's upcoming Ghostbusters - in the audience for her contributions to the script. Even though Feig has always written empowering and enlightened roles for women, one of the many reasons he's the best, it doesn't surprise me that Dippold informed this script. There's a tangible reality to the way Cooper is underestimated and undervalued by her male coworkers, and to the way she sells herself short at first, too, buying into the idea that she isn't as good as they are.

Watching Cooper realize that she's smarter, stronger and more capable than any of those fools is the real journey of Spy, and the fact that this journey takes place in an (admittedly overlong) action-packed spy thriller crammed with laughs, adventure, gadgets, globe-trotting set pieces and some pretty gnarly violence just makes the poignancy a hell of a lot of fun.