I watched Spy for the second time last night (I reviewed it out of SXSW), and for a second time I was struck by how deeply incisive this film is, underneath the hilarity and breathtaking action. Spy is a very funny movie, a very exciting movie, a movie that could be taken at surface value alone and make for terrific summer entertainment.
But it's also a movie that understands Melissa McCarthy's career in a way that most of Hollywood does not, and is unafraid to use her to the great breadth of her abilities.
Throughout the span of McCarthy's career, she's often played three types of characters: sweet, clumsy, adorable (Gilmore Girls, Mike and Molly, Samantha Who), dowdy and bumbling (Bridesmaids, Tammy) or raunchy yet surprisingly competent (The Heat). She plays each convincingly and with a certain amount of compelling charm, even when her character is meant to be profoundly uncharming. What she's rarely allowed to be - or has chosen not to be, as she was writer/producer on Tammy, a movie directed by her husband, Ben Falcone - is glamorous and composed, which just so happens to be the persona McCarthy projects with ease on the red carpet and in interviews.
In Spy, McCarthy gets to embody all of these qualities, and something more besides. She begins the film as mild-mannered Susan Cooper, the sweet, pretty, fairly lame ground support for super-spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She's Johnny-on-the-spot as spy support, but lives an otherwise unexceptional life as a pushover to her beloved boss's many demands. Once Fine and most of the CIA's top agents are compromised, Cooper is sent to Europe on a "track and report" mission, as her desk status has kept her, for all practical purposes, invisible to the crime world at large. She's excited to adopt a new spy identity - and then crushed to discover that the identity is a dowdy, single mother of four. She's thrilled to receive some cool new gadgets, until she learns that the gadgets were created by the agency's (male) Q to suit his own impression of her: a rape whistle that blows a poison dart, security system-disabling spray disguised as fungal foot treatment, chloroform cloths in a hemorrhoid wipes container, poison antidote packaged as stool softener chews. After she proves herself competent in the field and is allowed to move to the next stage of the investigation, her new identity is no better: Penny Morgan owns ten cats and is vacationing in Italy with her Mary Kay money. This is what the CIA thinks Cooper can convincingly pull off, and it appears to be what Hollywood thinks of McCarthy, as well.
Here's where the Tammy crowd gets their bad wigs and fanny packs. But Spy, and Susan herself, don't intend to leave McCarthy in a kitty sweater for long. Trusting in her own abilities and going off-book, she gives herself a glam make-over in order to ingratiate herself to arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, as funny and ice-cold as ever). When that cover's blown, Susan again sheds her skin with remarkable facility, convincing the suspicious Rayna that she's actually an undercover, foul-mouthed, nails-tough bodyguard named Amber Valentine. Here we get a glimpse of The Heat's Mullins, albeit dressed in couture rather than stained sweatpants. She continues to transform, to evolve, to make rapid-fire identity changes based on the needs of the investigation and aided by her own quick wits and seemingly endless resources. By the end of the film, sweet, pretty Susan Cooper has absorbed the confidence and brass of Amber Valentine. She's not one or the other, she's both and more, and McCarthy's so bright we can barely look at her, the most irresistible she's ever been.
So where did a desk jockey get those moves? Susan isn't just quick-thinking - she's an excellent shot, a fearsome fighter, a physical powerhouse. Herein lies the other half of Spy's piercing commentary. Cooper was a star at the CIA academy, a proven asset both academically and physically. But Fine was her mentor, and she made such a great support team for him that he never graduated her to the field. With his charm and Cooper's own insecurities - bred by a mother who used to teach her "blend in, let someone else win" - Fine had Cooper convinced that she was better off at a desk, playing Girl Friday to his James Bond. And she's told by CIA Director Elaine Crocker, played with no-nonsense appeal by Allison Janney, that this is the sort of thing men used to do to their female trainees all the time, before Crocker took charge. When Cooper assures her that the decision to stay off the field was both hers and Fine's, Crocker sighs, "Women."
There's a lot being said about patriarchy and imposter syndrome in this brief conversation. Male supervisors limit opportunities for their female employees to advance because they're considered better suited to administrative positions than in positions of authority, and women often allow themselves to be convinced of that fact because we don't have the confidence - or support - to assert our own talents. Susan spends much of her opening scenes running herself down, but once she's out in that field, her self-assurance begins to grow exponentially with every win. Deep down, she knows she was born to be an agent; that's why she attended the academy in the first place. But years of professional obstacles and her own complacency allowed her to doubt her skills, until circumstances require her to use them.
Unsurprisingly, the marketing for Spy has relied largely on the scenes of McCarthy in a goofy wig or playing nervous second fiddle to Law's Fine. This is what Hollywood thinks we want out of a Melissa McCarthy movie, but trust me that this film is much more than that. The biggest transformation we see throughout Spy isn't in Susan's admittedly impressive assortment of wigs. We watch Susan learn that she deserves to be out in the field, that she can handle herself in moments of crisis and, soon, that she's actually better equipped and far more competent than the cocksure men who have spent her career doubting her. We learn that she can pull off dowdy, bumbling, brassy, efficient, sexy and poised as well as she ever pulled off sweet and demure. We see this of Susan Cooper and we see it of Melissa McCarthy, who puts to rest any suspicion that she's only capable of playing caricatures or stereotypes. Paul Feig gave McCarthy the chance to embody the great gamut of Susan Cooper/Penny Morgan/Amber Valentine, and to show that she's capable of pulling off all of this and more. Let's keep giving her that chance, because as her audience, we're the ones who truly benefit.