Feminist spy comedy ruined by language

Another season, another spy-themed comedy, another opportunity to watch Hollywood exploit Melissa McCarthy’s weight and willingness to go to any lengths to portray the anti-leading lady. Those were my thoughts heading into Spy, the latest movie by McCarthy and director Paul Feig. In some ways, I was not far off the mark, but to my surprise I also enjoyed the movie. If only I could recommend it without reservations.

Melissa McCarthy has powered a renaissance of female-driven comedies in Hollywood (is it a renaissance if it was never really there to begin with?) and for that alone, I ought to love her. However, unlike much of the public, I did not particularly enjoy Bridesmaids, or The Heat, both by McCarthy and Feig, and both hits at the box-office. Pratfall comedy—particularly the sort that exploits an actor or actress’s weight—is not my cup of tea, so that torpedoed Bridesmaids. As for The Heat, more than twenty minutes of McCarthy’s particularly vicious brand of foul, in-your-face aggression is more than I can take.

Refreshingly, Spy is getting closer to the kind of movie women need McCarthy to make. She plays Susan Cooper, a brilliant, talented CIA agent who has accepted that a role behind the scenes is the best she can do. She’s so nice that even when her dashing superspy partner asks her to fire his gardener for him, she winds up hugging the gardener and mowing the lawn while he trims the hedges. When said superspy (played by Jude Law) goes MIA and his fellow field agents’ identities are compromised, Susan volunteers to go into the field herself to save the mission. After all, she’s spent her whole career in the vermin-infested basement of a government building. No one knows who she is.

But she is not the sort the CIA thinks can pull off a glitzy cover. They saddle her with Mary-Kay-rep/cat-lady-on-vacation types, complete with hideous outfits and wigs. In spite of being told to observe only, Susan makes the best of her opportunity and proves she has what it takes to save the day.

The film aces the gender-equality litmus test known as the Bechdel test (1. The movie has to have at least two women in it, 2. who talk to each other, 3. about something besides a man). Even better, McCarthy’s character through a good three quarters of the movie is a good-hearted, admirable woman, a sympathetic person doing her best to succeed in what has traditionally been a very male-driven profession (and sexist movie genre). Unfortunately, as she gains confidence and gets to the heart of the mission, much of nice girl Susan gets lost behind the crude, even violently abusive language she uses to maintain her cover.

Is some of it funny? Oh yes, even genre-bendingly funny. But some of it is just so far and above what is needed, even in a modern action comedy, that 1994’s Pulp Fiction—the film that made casual vulgarity A Thing in movies—looks quaint by comparison. In addition to Spy’s strong feminist message, it also seems to be saying women have to stoop to extreme levels of coarseness to be as tough as, as funny as, as heroic as men to mine box-office gold.

As I rooted for Susan, and laughed at the genuinely funny moments, admiring the little twists on the spy genre along the way, I hoped that maybe this was a movie I could recommend to my parents. My dad loves the old James Bond movies, and the plot wasn’t so complicated it needed a diagram, which meant my mom would be able to follow it. But as the movie neared its conclusion, it became clear to me that this was a pass. It’s a shame in the same way that Kingsman: The Secret Service (another spy action comedy I reviewed earlier in the year) was a shame—a good movie ruined by excessive reliance on a single element. With Kingsman, the problem was graphic violence. With Spy, it’s hateful language. Comedy is the hardest genre to get just right, and it shows.

Spy is rated R by the MPAA for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity (Although I’m not sure when that was. Obviously, it was pretty forgettable).