The mission of this movie is not a secret. It's the film Melissa McCarthy finally gets to headline as an acknowledgment of the comic creativity she's displayed since the moment we fell in love with her in Bridesmaids. The budget is big. The supporting cast is A-list. It's a Valentine from Hollywood to the funniest woman in the world.
No question, she deserves it. When it comes to Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, however, as Kristen Wiig's character said in that picture's infamous dress-shop scene, "There might be a question." Spy is also an industry back pat for Feig, who's helped advance the cause of female-centric comedy. He worked with McCarthy on The Heat, and he's helming the Ghostbusters she-boot. What he hasn't done before is write a screenplay for a major feature. And it shows.
McCarthy presides over this mixed bag of a Bond parody as analyst Susan Cooper. Working from the basement of CIA headquarters, she's the voice in the earpiece of agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), tracking his movements on her computer and warning him when danger lurks around a distant corner.
The film lingers perhaps too long on Cooper's backstory. We learn that she graduated at the top of her class years earlier, but allowed herself to be passed over when others were promoted into the field. Her mother, she confesses to a coworker, used to put notes in her lunchbox reading, "Give up on your dreams, Susan." But a meek and mousy McCarthy isn't what we came to see.
Eventually, an assassin outs all the agents on active duty. The company has no choice but to put Cooper on the case of a Bulgarian arms dealer (Rose Byrne) about to unload a nuke. As a writer, Feig favors gags over logic. So, while none of the other agents wear disguises, Cooper's given a succession of joke identities. For example, she becomes a frumpy cat enthusiast equipped with secret weapons to match her profile — anti-fungal ointment that's really mace and chloroformed hemorrhoid wipes. Nearly two-thirds through the movie, the McCarthy we came to see has yet to make her entrance.
Then, without explanation, Cooper suddenly morphs into a glamorous, sophisticated crime fighter, and the real fun starts. Then stops. Then starts again. Feig's two-hour production is a frustratingly hit-or-miss affair. When it hits, it's amusing, though never as fall-out-of-your-seat funny as Bridesmaids or The Heat. Byrne's a riot as the villainess, the Brit comic Peter Serafinowicz impresses as an Italian agent who can't keep his hands off Cooper, and Jason Statham's a revelation in a role that's a masterpiece of self-parody.
McCarthy puts her signature spin on the things secret agents do: fight, shoot, drive fast. Things we've seen her do in films before. What I kept waiting to witness was the thing for which we love her most: her mind-blowing ability to improvise; to "leave the planet," as she's described it, and extemporize absurdist barrages of non sequiturs and surreal concepts. Inexplicably, McCarthy never takes the safety off. Except for a second or two in the film's 120 minutes, she sticks to the script.
Which isn't a catastrophe — Feig can be a laugh and a half. He's simply no match for his leading lady when she's in the zone, and not going there keeps Spy from being the movie it might have been. When the DVD arrives, the outtakes are going to be killer. Until then, fans will just have to wonder why the world's funniest woman got the assignment of a lifetime but decided not to use her secret weapon.