Tuesday, June 9, 2015

'Spy' Does It All and Does It Right - Finally and Thank Goodness


Saying that a movie "does it right" these days is kind of a confusing thing. Like, you know it when you see it, and it's incredibly easy to pinpoint movies that have "done it wrong" or "tried so hard" or "clearly didn't try at all". What the heck does it even mean to say that a movie "does it right"? Does what? How? 

Well, in the case of Spy it seems like, for once, everyone is in agreement. This movie does spy movies right, it does female lead action flicks right, it does comedy right, and it does fat empowerment right. In fact the only thing this movie doesn't arguably do right is racial representation - it's a very white film. But that's pretty much it. Seriously. I'm impressed.

And so is everyone else. In an age when we keep hearing how the R-rated comedy is dropping like a brick, how no one really wants to turn out to see a comedy that they can't take their kids to, Spy had a banner weekend and continues to look like it's going to be on top for a while. Melissa McCarthy has her star vehicle, a bunch of under-appreciated character actors get comedic turns, and we the world get to enjoy the beauty that is Jason Statham sending up Jason Statham movies.

Spy is great. It's a phenomenal achievement of a film, if only because it feels so effortless. But there's something really frustrating about having to praise a film for managing to be both funny and kickass and not offensive. I know it's really my whole schtick, but sometimes I get tired of being the PC police. I get frustrated that one of my criteria on judging films and media is "Is it offensive or insensitive or badly representative of a marginalized group?" That blows. So while I'm incredibly happy that for once there's a film which doesn't make me do that, I'm also sad that this is so rare.

That's your downer for the article. Everything else about this movie is, by and large, worthy of praise.

For starters, the plot is phenomenal, the kind of imaginative silly story that for whatever reason we haven't seen in a while. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a schoolteacher turned CIA agent who works in "the basement" providing on mission support to superagent Bradley Fine (Jude Law, being his Jude Law-iest). Fine is an agent in the style of James Bond, all suave good looks and casual one-liners while he leaves a trail of destruction behind, but he's really a stuffed shirt. All the good actual espionage comes from Cooper, who tells Fine where to go, who to shoot, and what intel is worth looking at.

In other words, Fine is a front and Cooper is the brains. Which works pretty well for them. It's an established long relationship which involves Fine taking all the credit for their shared ops and Cooper being stuck in an office and doled out little compliments whenever Fine needs her to pick up his drycleaning or fire his gardener. He negs her constantly and is generally the worst. 

That's our backdrop. The story starts when Fine, in pursuit of a portable nuclear bomb that could change the face of terrorism, accidentally sneezes and shoots the only man in the world who knows where the bomb is. It's a horrible problem, until the CIA discovers that the man's daughter, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) also knows the location. 

So Fine goes after Rayna and Cooper has a bad feeling. She tries to tell Fine to pull back, but it's too late. He dies and Rayna makes it very clear that she knows the faces of all of the CIA's top operatives. If they come after her, she'll set the nuke off herself.

Naturally, Cooper is distraught at the death of her partner, which quickly turns into a desire for vengeance. The top CIA operatives aren't thrilled to learn that they're off the case, with Rick Ford (Statham) being the most vocal protester. But Cooper has the solution. If none of the well known operatives can get close to the man they think is selling the bomb, why not have her do it? No one knows her face and she disappears in a crowd. Even better, her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) agrees.

Ford is so incensed by this decision that he quits on the spot, but Cooper is thrilled. Finally she gets to be a real agent! And here comes out biggest surprise of the film: she actually could have been a real agent all along. 

See, we the audience have come into this movie with expectations. The idea that Cooper, a middle-aged, overweight woman would be a mousey, timid secretary type. It's a stereotype, but I think we all figured that's what the movie was going for. Turns out, it wasn't. Susan Cooper is a stone-cold badass, and as her boss reveals, not only passed the physical tests and weapons tests to be a field agent, she put her instructor in the hospital. Susan Cooper isn't just good with a gun, she's alarmingly violent and full of rage. 

Which begs the question of why she's in the basement. And the answer is heartbreaking, but incredibly true. She's in the basement because Bradley Fine played on her emotions, possibly unconsciously, but definitely effectively, and convinced her that the field wasn't for her. He kept her in the basement so that he could take credit for her skills. Maybe it was an accident. Who knows. But we do know that Susan Cooper is actually an amazing agent. Now the film is just about proving it.

And that does take a little time, sure. The first few aliases and cover identities they give her are deeply insulting. A single mother in Europe on business. An elderly Mary Kay lady on the trip she won for selling the most makeup. More terrible stuff like that. At first Cooper is hesitant and terrified and really unsure of herself. It doesn't help that Rick Ford keeps following her around, being super conspicuous, and constantly nearly blowing her cover.

It's not until Cooper says screw it and throws her agency covers out the window that she starts to see results. She tosses aside the role life has decided for her, very literally, and becomes someone new. A badass. A hyper-competent beautiful woman. She talks her way into Rayna Boyanov's inner circle, kills an assassin, saves millions of lives, and generally single-handedly fixes everything.

I don't want to spoil the actual plot, and trust me when I say that this is just the beginning of the story, but I want to make it clear why I like this film so much. I was hesitant going in because, frankly, Melissa McCarthy's most recent spate of films haven't been worthy of her talent. Neither has her sitcom, Mike and Molly. For years I've been having to watch this incredibly funny, remarkable actress be reduced a series of jokes about how fat and ugly she is. I really thought this movie would be more of the same.

And, to an extent, it is. The difference here is that Susan Cooper isn't laughing along. So yeah, she's fat. Who cares? Cooper asks the question we all deeply want asked, which is "Does being fat make me less of a valuable person?" and then answers it with a ringing, "Hell no!"

It's also really compelling to see how the film shows this journey with compassion and humor, making it clear that Cooper has to figure this all out for herself, but also that there are other people to help her along the way. 

She has her best friend, Nancy (Miranda Hart, whose sitcom Miranda is similarly wonderful), another atypically attractive woman struggling in the shallow world of espionage. And she has Aldo (a scene stealing Peter Serafinowicz), who makes it incredibly clear to her how attractive he finds her, but also how talented she is as a spy. 

It's not that Nancy and Aldo validate Susan Cooper and so she can believe in herself, it's that she realizes how much the people around her support her no matter what, and it makes it easier for her to take action. Which seems true.

Plus, Cooper's moments of real triumph come when she utterly discards the role that society has given her to play, that of the submissive little mouse who should apologize for her size and presence. Her foul-languaged rant at Rayna Boyanov, complaining of being underestimated, should be commended both for its creativity and for the power Cooper finds in that moment. She suddenly sees that she doesn't have to apologize, she can demand, and it's beautiful to watch.

In fact, by and large the best part of this movie is its relationships. Susan Cooper is a great character on her own and the plot really is well done, but it's how the characters function with each other that makes it all really compelling. We as human beings exist in community with each other, and it's important to see that as characters change, so too do their relationships with other characters.

It's nice to see Cooper's life before and after, and to note how things do and do not change. Nancy still looks up to her, but now Nancy knows a little bit more about her own abilities. Aldo still thinks Cooper is sexy, but he also thinks she's an amazing spy. Ford still likes to insult Cooper at every opportunity, but she throws it right back and he respects the hell out of her. In other words, we see how Cooper's rising confidence and the way she handles herself impacts the world.

I don't think that Spy is going to change everything, nor do I have any great hopes that it will even particularly change filmmaking. But for what it is, I appreciate it. It's a damn good movie. It's funny and heartwarming and really foul-mouthed and sometimes incredibly violent. It's a solid story with amazing performances. And it manages to tell the story of a fat woman coming to realize how awesome she is without being condescending or stereotypical. 

It might not be worth an Oscar, but it's totally worth a movie ticket.


2 comments:

  1. Sounds great. I like movies with character arcs about gaining confidence and I like when there's actual friendship between girls not constant competition. Susan and Nancy as co-workers and besties? Yes please! Hubby likes action/chase sequences, cool weapons (he still geeks out over the little cricket gun in MIB) and stories about international intrigue, so this looks like a good weekend date movie. :D

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    1. Oh man, it so is! I hadn't thought of this in terms of a date movie, but you're right. It's perfect.

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