Summer 2015’s first big blockbuster comedy, Spy, may traffic in elaborate onscreen subterfuge, but it’s little more than the latest variation on a baby-simple, well-worn Hollywood formula.The movie’s admittedly energetic and amusing aim is to lampoon and critique the conventions of the spy movie, and of course, to get laughs.
Not, you know, that there’s anything wrong with that. Spy-movie spoofs, like all spoofs, are for clever audiences and smarty-pants actors who get to flex their knowledge of all of the genre’s in-jokes and references, both oblique and over-the-top. And in this one, a woman gets to wear the smarty-pants. Spy showcases comedy-doyenne Melissa McCarthy (in her most accomplished performance since The Heat, another collaboration with director Paul Feig), as mousy CIA intelligence agent Susan Cooper, who has spent years pining for and providing remote intel to a dashing-yet-daft (limited-intelligence?) agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). They’re a good team, in traditional workplace terms: she does all the work, while he gets the glory. While he’s jet-setting around the world, karate-chopping and accidentally shooting an indistinguishable retinue of anonymous villains, she’s sitting in the CIA’s vermin-infested basement, both dreaming of his ass and saving it. She’s in his ear, forecasting his every move, but she’s not his conscience. How could she be, when she does similar work? When he’s murdered by a nuke-dealing Bulgarian crime lord (Rose Byrne), McCarthy volunteers to go undercover on a reconnaissance mission. Hijinks, predictably, ensue.
Dressed in a dowdy outfit and equipped with shitty gadgets (literally: there’s poison-antidote disguised as stool softener, and chloroform napkins housed inside a package made for hemorrhoid wipes), McCarthy makes her way to Paris, Rome, and then Budapest, bickering with alpha-male agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), engaging in hand-to-hand-to-hand combat (thanks to a touch-feely, rapey agent played by Peter Serafinowicz), and exchanging banter with her own in-ear intel agent/best friend Nancy (Miranda Hart). The sharpest jokes come when McCarthy—who’s made her reputation via an occasionally tedious brand of slapstick physical comedy—is not the butt of the joke, like her failed attempt to keep from defiling the dead body of a goon. (After she throws his body over a staircase, she accidentally vomits on top of him and knifes him in the heart.) And of course, there are double-crosses, and double-double crosses, which have a certain impatient list-ticking feel in the hands of director Feig, who’s plainly eager to conduct McCarthy and co. into the next absurdist gag or derisive one-liner.
In “The Spy Who LOL’d Me: The Enduring Appeal of Espionage Parody Movies,” Grantland’s Kevin Lincoln surveys canonical films within the genre, including What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, the original Casino Royale, and Spies Like Us. He also argues that there’s been a drop-off in quality from the genre’s ’90s heyday, when Leslie Nielsen and Mike Myers bumbled across screens in their respective The Naked Gun and Austin Powers franchises.
Maybe it’s the obviousness of these tropes that makes it so hard to produce a good parody. For half a century, we’ve been laughing at the same punch lines over and over: an unqualified buffoon becomes a spy; an over-the-top lunatic wants to blow up the world; governments and intelligence agencies are all run by idiots.
On one level, Spy successfully updates this formula, because it directly engages with the espionage film’s most glaring weakness: the problem of gender. Spy smartly upends the hoary cliché—reliably featured in straight and spoof versions of the spy film alike—of the omnicompetent, seemingly immortal macho spy. Indeed, in a cleverly self-deconstructing performance, Statham delivers a painfully spot-on caricature of the roles he’s known for (in The Transporter, Snatch, Crank, etc.), all of which feature the macho spy on steroids, as it were.
In a complimentary, but ultimately more important strain of meta-commentary, the kind of gear and spy disguises that the Agency issues to McCarthy’s character, not to mention the incessant jokes about her appearance, slyly parody the ways in which the actress herself is typecast in frumpy and/or over-the-top bawdy roles—someone, in all events, never to be taken seriously. Still, while Spy is able to carry off a sharp critique of Hollywood’s systemic misogyny and bathetic action fare, it doesn’t deliver a satisfying no-holds-barred send-up of American spycraft, and the imperial ambitions that animate it. Instead, it runs aground on its own geopolitical inertia. This, too, is a common failing of our more recent spy spoofs: As Lincoln argues, “In a world in which these concepts aren’t even necessarily fiction, the spy parody becomes a lot less interesting; it feels like a throwback to a time when the specter of the Cold War was thick and pitch-black.”
Of course, the gold standard (if you’ll pardon the expression) for pitch-black Cold War parody is Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 opus, Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s broadside against nuclear paranoia of the Cold War world was actually a satire of its source material; it was adapted out of all recognition from a standard-issue novel about a Soviet-engineered doomsday called Red Alert. In the hands of Kubrick and his co-screenwriter Terry Southern, it became a carnivalesque parade of unhinged characters, sinister defense intellectuals, and cowboy sensibilities—all rendered terrifyingly plausible as the faces of power in the confrontational Cold War bellicosity of the Kennedy administration’s New Frontier In other words, Strangelove succeeded masterfully as both parody and satire, managing to critique the Cold War’s ludicrous institutional prerogatives, megalomanias and absurdist conceits of power as it also reliably turned them into comic fodder.
Spy is a far cry from that. It feels like a parody of parody movies, a navel-gazing flick clever enough to use its threat of multiple bombings as a device to play with the idea of the movie itself “bombing.” Feig’s movie doesn’t aim for the transcendence that Kubrick achieved, since it invests its plot with no real moral or political significance, save for its feminist critique. The bomb-intrigue is a mere maguffin—an elaborate joke-delivery system, and its politics are a mere afterthought. Bobby Cannavale’s sleaze-ball nuke salesman tells a heavily accented drone joke, and there’s a running gag about the CIA’s bureaucratic inefficacy, but nothing that sticks.
Fifty years after the height of the nuclear bomb threat, and approximately one year after the CIA joined Twitter, why should Spy worry about being Dr. Strangelove? It was a surefire blockbuster out of the gate—meaning that nothing about it could bomb, or risk much of anything that could blow up in its creator’s face.