Spy, the latest comedy starring Melissa McCarthy, the comedienne who is apparently campaigning for the title of “Hardest Working Actor in Hollywood,” follows a hard-working desk jockey as she goes out onto the field for the first time to do all the things heroes do in spy movies. (Given that these kinds of movies are rarely helmed by women, there’s a bit of double-meaning in that plot synopsis.) Spy does well what the best high-concept comedies do well – it takes its situation seriously while peppering it throughout with a steady stream of outrageous visual and conversational humor. Spy is a lark.

Spy works brilliantly, because the cast is great. Melissa McCarthy is hilarious, especially when she adopts different personas to conceal her identity throughout her mission. As funny as McCarthy is, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, and Peter Serafinowicz each almost manages to steal the film. As is typical of Paul Feig’s films, these characters are all a little more grounded than the outlandish caricatures in a Will Ferrell film, but they still mug for the camera in obvious ways. Their mugging is just a little more subdued. Feig and his cast strike a consistent, level tone throughout the film that allows the comedy to be bigger or smaller as the situation calls for it.

The cast seems always to be having fun, too, which is a feat considering how these kinds of comedies are made, with actors improvising one-liners ad nauseam for the editor, Brent White, to assemble afterwards. Each line delivery that made it to the screen is as energized as if it was the only line delivered for that moment. It wasn’t, of course. The editing discloses the truth as one actor in a single shot delivers the set-up and then the film cuts to another actor for the payoff. You can imagine the camera staying on the actor for a while as she improvises funny line after funny line until she is all out of ideas and/or energy. To Spy’s cast’s credit, their energy seems limitless.

At some point—Why not now, briefly?—we’re going to have to reckon with this style of comedy. What does it mean that the humor is as much constructed as it is performed? What does the style reward? What does it encourage? 

Looking past the profanity, violence, nudity, and sexually explicit dialogue—there’s a lot of all of those things in Spy—I think the comedy itself hinges on wit and stamina and requires a great amount of charm from the actor. It says that the funniest person is the person who can come up with the greatest number of outlandish, extreme, or surprising responses in a given situation. If someone can be consistently creative in this way, so that the audience doesn’t grow tired of the schtick, that person is worthy of our laughter. The actors have to walk a fine line between being laughable and likable. This kind of comedy takes both comedic chops and charisma.

Perhaps that’s why comedians like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler aren’t as successful today as they used to be; they both come across a little too arrogant to be likable. They are comedians of a different era when we were as willing to laugh at comedians as we were to laugh with them. Melissa McCarthy, Will Ferrell, Kevin James, and even Bill Murray (though he has transcended eras) are kind clowns. They’re lovable. We root for them. They’re clever and charming, and so we’ll watch them do similar, funny things in movie after movie. We enjoy spending time with them and don’t mind a few jokes falling flat along the way.

Very few jokes fall flat in Spy. If you don’t mind the R-rated content, it’s a lot of fun. And, given Melissa McCarthy’s work ethic, I’m sure she will return in… some other movie in our theaters soon.

You might also find these reviews of Spy helpful:

1 More Film Blog
Christianity Today
Larsen on Film
Reel Gospel