Pulling off a balance between genre parody and straight-ahead action comedy, Spy tells the story of Agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a mousy CIA support staffer for a James Bond–type (Jude Law) who’s sent into the field to infiltrate the organization of an international terror scion (Rose Byrne), only to be antagonized by a rogue agent (Jason Statham) who doubts her ability. With a true ensemble cast, Spy is practically dripping with great performances, not only from co-headliners Law, Byrne, and Statham, but also from supporting actors Allison Janney as the bureau chief, Morena Baccarin as a rival spy, Bobby Cannavale as a dashing playboy financier, and Miranda Hart as Cooper’s best-friend-turned-handler. There’s even a funny cameo appearance from rapper 50 Cent, who turns a throwaway line into one of the best jokes of the final act.
Spy is something of a Rorschach test. People looking to the film for different elements and with different expectations will most likely come away satisfied. Looking for an action film? You got it. In addition to fine work from the typecast Law and Statham, Spy unleashes McCarthy in full beast mode, doing more stunts and fight sequences than ever—including one particularly harrowing battle with a deadly assassin in a restaurant kitchen.
You want raunchy comedy? C’mon…this is a Paul Feig movie. There are plenty of salty putdowns, profane comebacks, and fart jokes. Also, there’s a particularly gross moment where McCarthy’s Agent Cooper kills a bad guy, and then, as a shock response to the trauma of the moment, vomits on him.
Looking for a “girl-power” feminist buddy comedy? Check. Plenty of the scenes with McCarthy and Miranda Hart are alternately sweet and hilarious, echoing the strong friendship between Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids. As Cooper and Nancy, their workplace bonding spills over into antics in the field. And part of the R rating is for nudity—male nudity, that is. Obviously, this is not your typical testosterone-driven action flick.
But the heart of the film is centered on the inner journey of the protagonist. McCarthy’s performance is alternately smart, honest, poignant, and boisterous as she plays a woman who finally gets a chance to show everyone else the inner strength she possessed all along. I’m assuming many of the targeted demographic—adult professional women—will resonate deeply with Cooper’s plight, because both women and overweight people are routinely discriminated against in many workplaces, and part of her backstory is that when she joined the CIA, she excelled in her academy training, but as a woman she was subtly coerced into a support role. Thus, part of the joy of watching McCarthy in Spy is seeing all of her layers of persona come to fruition as she transitions from frumpy matron, to slapstick spaz, then to gonzo drill-sergeant bodyguard, and finally, into a self-assured field agent.
Watching this film, I was reminded of a verse from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus:
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10 NIV).
What’s interesting about this verse is not only what precedes it, but what comes after. Early in Ephesians 2, Paul is admonishing the people of the church not to forget from where they came, what kind of situations they were in before they came to faith in Christ. He wanted them not to think more highly of themselves than they ought to, especially since the faith they received was not because of how good, or virtuous, they were, but a gift. It’s by grace, Paul is saying in verses 8 and 9, not because of anything you did to deserve it.
But for the rest of the chapter Paul talks about how both Jews and Gentiles can exist in reconciliation because of Christ. Neither group gets to be defined solely as insider or outsider anymore, because Christ eliminated the dividing wall between them and gave them equal access to God’s saving gift of love and redemption.
What I found so refreshing and countercultural about Spy is that it treated Melissa McCarthy on an equal plane of stardom as many of her non-plus-sized peers. It didn’t ignore her obvious physical challenges and limitations, but neither did it condescend or patronize her. As Agent Cooper, McCarthy displayed not only emotional range, but a commanding sense of physical presence that suggests she belongs in roles like these. She’s not “great, for an oversized actor” or “great, for a female action hero.” She’s just great. This performance is likely to vault her into A-list territory.
That’s why this bawdy comedy felt, to me at least, biblically resonant. In society, people often use core or immutable parts of our identity (gender, race, overall physical appearance) as a means to discriminate against us and minimize our accomplishments. But that’s not how it works with God. In God’s kingdom, all the core aspects of our identity can be affirmed and put into service. God doesn’t segregate us based on age or race or gender or physical appearance—there are no dividing walls in his kingdom. Any one of us can receive the gift of salvation because we are all God’s handiwork to begin with.
My sense is that long after the jokes and the action sequences have faded from memory, the subversive lessons of Spy will remain:
- People will surprise you when you give them a chance to exist as full, three-dimensional human beings instead of just stereotyping them as clichés.
- There’s a fine line between stability and stagnation, and sometimes setbacks and traumas are the catalysts we need to move forward in life.
These are important lessons for us all to remember and internalize.
Which is not to say this film is for everyone. There is a lot of profanity in the film, and while that didn’t bother me much, I had decidedly mixed feelings about the use of sexual innuendo. On the one hand, I found it refreshing that McCarthy’s Agent Cooper could be seen as a sexual being—fair treatment not often shown to plus-sized women in films—but I also found it distracting and ultimately dissatisfying how much her character was defined by physical attention from men, either by lack or by overabundance. This film, like so many others, presents unrealistic expectations concerning the role of sexuality in creating emotionally healthy, mature relationships.
But these concerns, while significant, should not be enough to scare away a discerning viewer. After watching copious old Gilmore Girls episodes, then Bridesmaids, The Heat, and now Spy, I can confidently say that with Melissa McCarthy, the positives usually outweigh the negatives.