Earlier this month, ahead of its May release in Australia and in the US, the new action-comedy Spy had a premiere screening at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Though seemingly unorthodox for a major release (and a mainstream comedy at that) to see a public screening so far in advance of its release, it’s something that Paul Feig saw work for his little known film Bridemaids back in 2008 – where it screened as a “Work in Progress” addition to the festival’s lineup – and helped it garner the buzz to become one of the biggest film’s of that year. Has that paid off again this time? Only time will tell, but in the meantime we can safely say that the film does not disappoint.
Spy reunites Feig with Melissa McCarthy, who plays Susan Cooper, a desk bound CIA analyst who dreams of being an active agent. A series of circumstances play out and we find Cooper on her first assignment, chasing down Rayna Boyanov (Australia’s Rose Byrne, another to reuinte with Feig for this production) to find out what happened to her partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law).
The scenes between McCarthy and Byrne are hilarious – they are both at their absolute best in this film. Feig manages to bring something out of both of them but makes them totally watchable from start to finish – something that McCarthy has struggled with as the lead in the past. She’s well balanced here by the cast around her, which is where films like Tammy and Identity Thief have fallen flat. What Spy finally shows for the talented comedian is that when the formula is right, she can certainly lead a comedy. It just can’t rest entirely on her shoulders.
And that’s where Jason Statham comes in, who is effortlessly brilliant (and often hilarious) as Rick Ford, the wannabee James Bond who is, at best, frustratingly hopeless at his job. British comedian Miranda Hart gets her first foray into the mainstream American Comedy here and plays a character that fans of her UK series Miranda will enjoy. They have kept her within her comforts here and it works well. Bobby Cannavale plays an enjoyable bad guy as De Luca and Allison Janney is the typical hard-arse boss who delivers well (one would expect no less). Look out for a great cameo from 50 Cent, too.
Some may end up criticizing the film for some of its more offensive, misogynistic characters, which do feel ill placed at times in a film that tries to contradict gender stereotypes – but with Byrne and McCarthy playing so far out of stereotype they seem to get away with it and balance it well. After all, McCarthy plays a character who is fighting against the misogynistic tendencies of not only the fictional world in which she lives, but also of the very nature of the typical spy film, where women are the eye candy, and objects of affection, rather than the “hero”. And though they never purport to get “deep and meaningful” on the subject at any point in the film, it’s an overarching theme that shouldn’t be praised so much because they “went there”, but more that they “made it work”.
This is very much a mainstream comedy in the same way that Bridesmaids was. This isn’t some indie comedy gem, nor is it something that’s going to win a pile of awards. But like Bridesmaids, what sets it apart from the rest is that it’s genuinely a good film. It’s funny, well written and given some grand – if not occasionally over-the-top – performances. And with few attempts at the “spy comedy” hitting the mark (Get Smart was the last notable one, at least in the English language, and that only got halfway there… has anything really managed it since Austin Powers?), it’s an achievement in itself that the team have created a compelling spy film that’s actually funny, too.
No doubt they’re already thinking about a sequel, with Feig noting in the film’s Q&A at SXSW that he’d like to see these characters to return, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves… we know how bad comedic sequels almost always are… for the meantime let’s enjoy what is destined to be one of the year’s biggest comedies.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Spy screened at SXSW – where it was reviewed – and is released in Australia on May 21st. Watch our interviews with the cast and director HERE, and you’ll find the brand new Australian trailer below!