Review: Spy (2015)

Spy-Review
Published September 17th 2015 | Tags: , , ,

Spy has been this summer’s big comedy success story, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars and promoting Melissa McCarthy into the top three highest-earning female stars in Hollywood.  Critics have been very positive and audiences have responded well.  For a CIA-assisted comedy, it is up there with Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers in terms of its all round success and the affection it has inspired in viewers.

I previewed Spy back in June when it came out and having seen the film and its success I can say that all the predictions in that article have come to pass, though they were all obvious predictions to make.  It was clear even in the week of its release that this was going to be the big one for this year.  As Austin Powers proved an action comedy in the spy genre is big money, if it is done right.  Spy is done right – a good blend of verbal and visual gags, a plot that just about holds together when it needs to and plenty of fun, identifiable, discussable characters.  While I myself did not find the film particularly funny, the obvious target market – women over 25 and people who like gross-out humour – are well served by this production.

The CIA’s involvement in Spy

Melissa McCarthy, the star of Spy, revealed the Agency’s involvement in the film in a tiny slip in a BBC interview in early June.  McCarthy said that, ‘I talked to someone all throughout filming that had actually done that job’ and when asked if she meant a CIA analyst’s job she clarified, ‘she was actually out in the field, she was someone who got a disguise, was in a location’.

The listing for Spy on IMDB and the credits at the end of the film do not list a technical advisor,  If this consultant was a former CIA officer then they could reveal their name, as many others have done.  This makes it more likely that either the technical advisor is still working for the Agency or that there was broader involvement beyond just this one person.

If that is the case then there is some precedent for this.  2010’s Salt starring Angelina Jolie of the Council on Foreign Relations does have a listed technical advisor – Melissa Boyle Mahle, whose website is here.  If you listen to the director’s commentary on the DVD of Salt then you will hear Philip Noyce explaining that it wasn’t just this one former agent, but that all the principals involved in the film had a teleconference with several current CIA clandestine agents.  This is not referred to anywhere in reviews of Salt, just as the existence of the technical advisor on Spy is not referred to anywhere.

The connections between Spy and Salt run wider than just the murkiness around how involved the CIA was in their production.  Salt was originally going to have a male lead, one of various attempts by Sony Pictures to create a rival to the Bourne franchise.  Amy Pascal, the former senior executive at Sony, suggested changing the lead to a woman, and this is how Angelina Jolie got involved.  Spy is perhaps the most women-friendly and female-oriented spy film to date – the lead, the sidekick and the villain are all women.  Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig’s next major project together – their fourth so far – is the remake of Ghostbusters, where the male characters from the original have been turned into women, and the main producer is Amy Pascal.

The CIA’s portrayal in Spy

Along with being very female-friendly Spy is very CIA-friendly, featuring the Agency more prominently than any other comedy film.  In The Interview the Agency merely appears in order to induct the willing fools played (appropriately) by James Franco and Seth Rogen into the CIA for an assassination mission.  The Agency itself is a secondary character, a supporting act.  In Spy the CIA is the primary setting, where the willing fool Susan Cooper – played by Melissa McCarthy – is working behind a desk supporting field agents and is inducted into the world of on the ground black operations.

While there are some mild jokes at the CIA’s expense – bats living in the office ceilings, that sort of thing – they are ultimately shown as competent (they stop an arms dealer selling a tactical nuke to terrorists) and progressive (they accept and support McCarthy’s entrance into the world of real espionage).  While most of their agents go rogue at some point in Spy they are all in the mould of the loveable rogue, the maverick who bends the rules in order to get results, with hilarious consequences.

What Spy shares with The Interview is the visual portrait of the CIA.  Both films feature the signature establishing shot of Langley, at around the same point in the story:

Langley-TheInterviewShot of Langley from The Interview

Langley-SpyShot of Langley from Spy

Both films then have sequences inside a briefing room at CIA headquarters, with the CIA logo visible on computer screens embedded in the walls in the background:

CIAbriefingroom-TheInterviewCIA Briefing Room – The Interview

CIAbriefingroom-SpyCIA Briefing Room – Spy

In both films the eagle on the CIA logo is facing the wrong way.  I hypothesised in my review of The Interview that this was some sort of attempt at deniability – that the CIA could cite the messed-up logo as evidence that they weren’t involved in the production even though it is obvious that they were.  In both Spy and The Interview the scenes set in the Langley briefing rooms are discussions about deniable agents.  The problem for the Agency is that the CIA’s own documents on the assistance they gave to Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games confirm that the CIA seal and logo are public domain – the filmmakers could have used the correct logo without the CIA’s permission.  Whether the same is true of the film footage of Langley is a different matter.

Spy treats the CIA logo slightly differently: first showing the exterior of Langley, then the proper CIA seal, and then a mixture of the correct logo and the eagle-reversed logo.  It seems the rule in Spy is that when the logo appears physically it is the correct logo but when it appears on a screen the eagle is reversed:

CIAseal-SpyShot of CIA seal – Spy

CIA logo montage - SpyMontage of CIA Logos – Spy

One final similarity between Spy and The Interview comes when, just like in Argo and The Interview, a celebrity is recruited by the CIA as a part of the storyline, in this case rapper 50 Cent.  Perhaps this is all some kind of self-referential in-joke where the CIA get involved in popular culture that itself portrays the CIA deputising pop culture icons :

50cent-SpyThe CIA recruiting 50 Cent

The Characters

The range of characters in Spy is quite impressive, and perhaps indicates that the producers did not feel McCarthy was quite ready to carry the movie on her own.  She plays Susan Cooper, a behind-the-scenes agent who aids and assists Jude Law’s character Bradley Fine, a by-the-numbers James Bond-alike.  This allows the film to introduce several elements that we have seen in other CIA-assisted productions particularly The Recruit, a film heavily influenced by CIA entertainment liaison Chase Brandon.

1 – There is a theatrical element to all this – Jude Law is the star, Melissa McCarthy the support act.  But when he is apparently killed in the field, she has to take his place, like an understudy does when the lead actor ‘accidentally’ breaks their ankle when coming off stage one night.  Likewise, Fine’s death is staged, faked, so ‘nothing is what it seems’.

2 – Susan Cooper/Melissa McCarthy is the willing fool, an almost ubiquitous character in CIA-assisted movies.  She is willing because she has already joined the agency and volunteers to replace Bradley Fine.  She is a fool because she doesn’t know what she’s getting into (Fine is actually still alive) and because she isn’t prepared for the sheer violence required of field agents.  When a goon attacks her and in their struggle ends up falling off a balcony and impaling himself on a piece of extruded railing, she is so shocked that she vomits over the corpse.  This moment has brought big laughs and a lot of comments online, showing it was a well-executed trojan horse, using gross-out slapstick as a vehicle for occult ideas.

3 – As the willing fool is inducted into the world of CIA black operations, complete with murder, so are we, the watching audience.  This point is so fundamental that I keep repeating it, but that’s because it is how almost all of these films work.  Whereas in DOD-assisted films the dramatic landscape is usually the lone gunslinger type, a man just doing what he gotta do, in CIA-assisted films there is almost always an element of someone being recruited into black operations and inducted into a whole new way of existing.  That character is invariably the one most likely to chime with the target audience.  Emphasising this, it is Bradley Fine’s staged sacrifice that initiates her ascendency into the new realm of CIA operations.

Spy-SusanCooperMelissa McCarthy as the willing fool Susan Cooper

Surrounding Susan and Bradley are several rather hackneyed but still fun secondary characters, with British women occupying both the sidekick and villain roles: Nancy, played by genuinely British actress Miranda Hart, and Rayna, the daughter of an arms dealer who is trying to sell a suitcase nuke to terrorists, played by Rosa Byrne who is about as British as Kylie Minogue.  This is one instance of Spy truly busting stereotypes – for once there’s a British character in an American spy movie who isn’t the bad guy, though of course the bad ‘guy’ is also British, so it doesn’t truly depart from the usual obligations of a Hollywood script.

On top of this there’s Jason Statham playing CIA agent Rick Ford, in a highly amusing pastiche of all the characters he’s played since Lock, Stock.  But then, Statham has always made a living playing a pastiche of himself, this is simply the next logical step.  Interestingly, the secondary villain is called Sergio De Luca, and is always referred to in the film as simply ‘De Luca’.  A reference, perhaps to Mike De Luca, a producer who works a lot with Sony and is good friends with Amy Pascal.

My personal favourites were (1) the CIA boss played by Allison Janney stole the show for me with her deadpan, cold blooded humour and (2) The sex-mad Italian CIA agent who is constantly trying to seduce or casually molest Susan Cooper, who in a curious twists turns out to be a British guy working for MI6 (or is he?).  Both of these characters genuinely made me laugh where the more central characters did not.

Is Spy a Feminist Movie?

On the face of it Spy is a feminist movie, because most of the main characters are female and most of them are clearly designed to be likeable and admirable.  The female lead takes on a ‘man’s role’ in becoming an undercover agent.  The male characters are all somewhat adolescent by comparison – Jason Statham makes endless jokes, the Italian CIA agent is obsessed with sex, and De Luca thinks it is funny to try to buy a nuke on behalf of terrorists.  Even Bradley Fine is on the sleazy side of being a slick Bond-type secret agent.  It is certainly the sort of ‘feminist’ movie that will get the Men’s Rights crowd riled up, especially the part at the climax of the helicopter chase when Miranda Hart’s character shoots De Luca and expresses how great it feels to kill a man.

Some have responded by praising the movie for being so apparently progressive and for ‘busting genres’ and putting in a ‘message of female empowerment’ (e.g. here). The Atlantic described it as ‘bursting with casual feminism’.  Forbes noted how the film has made more money overseas than domestically, ‘busting the myth’ that female-led films only do well inside America (really, is this something people actually think?).

However, some of these reviewers are suffering from profound confusion such as Monica Castillo of the International Business Times and Eric Snider of The Week.  Snider labelled the film ‘surprisingly progressive’ and both reviewers claim that the movie contains no fat jokes.  And it doesn’t, unless you count Susan being given a piece of jewellery with a tacky plastic cupcake on it because she ‘likes cake’:

Spy-cupcake necklaceCupcake Wars?

Or jokes about she looks like a ‘lunch lady’, again reducing her to merely ‘something to do with food’.  While neither of these are classic fat jokes, the film does make sure to include a moment during a chase where Susan tries to casually slide across the bonnet of a car and fails, and a moment in another chase where she tries to ride a scooter which tips over.  In both instances her failure is not her physical competence (the film establishes she is very capable) but her obesity which is the cause.

Spy-CarSusan Cooper falling off a car bonnet, because she’s fat

Thus, Susan Cooper is hardly a feminist icon.  She is constantly subject to humiliation and disappointment – most of her rites of passage in the film are underwhelming let-downs. Defamer compiled a list of ways the character is humiliated in the film, and even their brief, grabby run-down is quite extensive:

  • At dinner, Susan (Melissa McCarthy) receives a jewelry box from the movie-star handsome man that she works and is in love with, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). The box does not contain an engagement ring, as Susan hopes it does, but a plastic pendant in the shape of a cupcake. Bradley insists Susan wear the cupcake pendant immediately.
  • In the same scene, Bradley assumes Susan is a cat owner. When she corrects him, he tells her, “You should get some, they’re good company.”
  • Susan comes down with a facial irritation that her boss Elaine (Allison Janney) swears is pink eye. Though Susan denies it, she is mocked relentlessly for it.
  • Susan shares a story about her mother leaving notes in her lunch box that said things like, “Give up on your dreams, Susan.”
  • A bartender ignores Susan and her friend/co-worker Nancy (Miranda Hart) but waits on their more conventionally attractive C.I.A. colleague Karen (Morena Baccarin) immediately.
  • Nancy frames a fart on Susan, who is fat.
  • When Susan goes undercover, her weaponry is hidden in embarrassing personal items: her pepper spray looks like toe fungus treatment, poison antidote comes in a stool softener bottle, and disposable towels containing chloroform are disguised as hemorrhoid wipes.
  • Susan is made to stay in Paris in a rat trap hotel located in a seedy part of town.
  • Susan is instructed to tell a crowd that she shit her pants to get people to move out of the way.
  • Susan’s first assigned disguise is that of a dumpy mother of four. “I look like someone’s homophobic aunt,” she says. Her second disguise is a similarly dumpy owner of 10 cats.
  • While wearing the second disguise, Susan ignored by leering Italian men who catcall people on each side of her.
  • Susan is pawed relentlessly by an Italian agent who serves as her guide.
  • When she finally wears a dress of her own choosing, which spotlights her cleavage, Susan walks down the street holding her head high. Soon, the foolishness of her pride is exposed when she is mocked by her fellow agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who tells her, “You look like a flute player in a wedding band.” Her nemesis, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), calls her dress “hideous” and an “abortion.”
  • Susan witnesses a man poisoning Rayna’s drink—a problem, since Rayna must be kept alive. Susan tells Rayna that she saw a guy attempt to roofie Rayna’s drink, and Rayna immediately doubts that Susan could possibly know what it looks like when a man roofies a woman’s drink. “People often try to roofie you?” she asks, incredulous.
  • Rayna compares Susan to a clown she saw growing up in Bulgaria who performed her tricks in mud and “would just cry and cry.”

This is ‘feminism’ of the Bridget Jones variety, where instead of women feeling empowered they feel constantly undermined, embarrassed, underrated and devalued by the world around them, but keep going anyway.  While there is something to Susan as a plucky, capable, persistent, motivated agent the overriding message of the film is that even if you are all of those things, the world will still insult you for not conforming to meaningless standards of beauty, and will give you the barest of respect for extraordinary accomplishments.  While I guess this is one form modern ‘feminism’ takes, it certainly isn’t a progressive message about female empowerment.

This is shown best by Susan’s relationship with Bradley Fine.  It is clear from the first reel that Susan has a crush on Fine and he toys with her over it, using his ‘superior’ looks to play with her feelings.  Susan volunteers to replace him in the field when he is ‘killed’ because of her feelings for him and her boss (a woman) notices this and insults her saying ‘women…’ with a derisory eye roll.

Spy-CIAbossHow dare you fancy Jude Law, you potato…

At the very end of the film when Susan has saved the world, Fine he asks her to dinner and she turns him down in favour of spending the evening with her female best friend.  Whether this is a nod to that other sort of feminism – the kind you pay extra for in a brothel – I am not sure but it is ultimately a vindication of friendship rather than of women or femininity.  I did really like this ending, but as with the rest of the film it leaves Spy‘s feminist credentials in a very ambiguous state.

Conclusion

Spy is the most female-friendly movie the CIA has ever helped to produce but its superficially unconventional hero is a mask for a very conventional and traditional spy story.  The film doesn’t so much bust the mould as slightly reshape it so the jelly has some extra frills that people haven’t seen before.  At heart this is still a story of an willing fool drawn into a secret world full of fight-or-flight dilemmas and where ‘nothing is what it seems’.  That said, it is a relatively fun romp, the best American spy comedy since Burn After Reading and a film that has already served to bump Melissa McCarthy into the big time.  She is certainly one to watch, and we should not be at all surprised if we see her in another CIA-assisted comedy film in the next few years.

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