Walking Out of Spy in Search of Something Better

I have set a new record for myself, having now walked out early of two Paul Feig-Melissa McCarthy films in a row – The Heat and Spy, which, among other things, makes me worried about their upcoming Ghostbusters reboot. That, however, is of less immediate concern than what I saw of Spy itself.

I watched just over an hour of Spy, if you want numbers. I freely acknowledge that as I chose not to sit through the whole film, this is not a whole review. Full disclosure matters here, and if I get to see the rest of it some day, and feel differently, I’ll revise this piece.

This is not, therefore, so much a review of the film as of the fact that an earlier Feig-McCarthy collaboration, Bridesmaids, happens to be one of the smartest comedies in recent years; yet their two follow-ups are both among the most grace-free and purposeless. Bridesmaids isn’t just funny and aware, but actually coherent as a reflection of the real world. It makes us think about reality, laugh at ourselves, and maybe feel a little less burdened with the stress of getting things right in public. Spy and The Heat insult the audience’s intelligence; and Spy, at least, does this from the confounding place of initially appearing to know what it’s talking about.

In the beginning, Spy is brilliant: an hilarious satire on James Bond and Mission: Impossible tropes, with an ethically sensitive underpinning. Unfortunately, this is all in the sequence that preceded the opening credits. That’s a perfect little short film which demolishes the glamor of cinematic spy energies, as Jude Law’s suave agent dispatches a dozen or so henchmen, coached by McCarthy’s voice in his earpiece. Meanwhile, the CIA office in which McCarthy works is plagued with bats and mice (a nice joke about how everyone in the defense and espionage industry always says they’re underfunded); and Jude needs Melissa to fire his gardener for messing up the lawn. Feeling sad for the guy, she can’t go through with it, so she mows the lawn herself, while the gardener cuts the hedge, not hearing her muttering to herself in deprecation, “You’re a killer.”

It’s a wise little comic moment – we’ve just watched her use heat sensitive technology to target other human beings for summary execution, murder once removed, in our name. Two decades ago in Patriot Games, a scene like this was played for sinister effect, Harrison Ford and James Earl Jones looking thoughtful and morose as their surrogates took the lives of people they called terrorists, thousands of miles away, their frantic escape attempts unseen, and presumed screams unheard, with only orange-hued blobs moving around what looked like a video game screen. The new way of taking our enemies out was portrayed as a necessary evil, but one for which Presidents would have to answer.

In the murky post-9/11 light, when some people think anything goes, “You’re a killer” highlights a truthful and challenging piece of satire, underlining the denial that must be embraced to enable some aspects of current foreign policy to be carried out. To kill requires turning another human being into a piece of meat, or an orange blob. It’s easier that way. The pre-credits sequence of Spy makes clear that digitized killing can pretend, but it can’t hide. It’s the best short film I’ve seen all year.

Alas, like last year’s Lucy (in which Scarlett Johannson gains the power to turn back time but fails to see that she could use it to undo all the violent chaos she has spent the past ninety minutes perpetrating), Spy squanders the potential of its premise. In fact, by beginning with such a clever challenge to the assumption that we bear no responsibility for the killing done on our behalf, and then presenting a narrative that merely reasserts the notion that violence brings order out of chaos, and that our response should be to applaud or laugh, Spy leaves me wondering if the makers ever realized the power of what they had to start with.

I know that many people may respond to this by suggesting I’m putting more into my expectations of a mainstream Hollywood comedy than is realistic; like asking Rodney Dangerfield to write a thesis on family kinship patterns. But good comedy is as rich as good drama. The Marx Brothers do as good a job in Duck Soup as The Hurt Locker does of lamenting the failure of war to resolve conflicts; Dustin Hoffman’s journey to become a better man through playing a woman in Tootsie, while controversial for some, offers a bridge to self-understanding through role play and thought experiments as good as some of the best experiences of therapy; the recent The D-Train confronts the hypocrisy of communities who pay lip service to inclusivity, and the cost of ego-driven careerism; even The Muppet Movie can help us imagine a world in which the most marginalized people – and the most vulnerable parts of ourselves – are celebrated. Those films make us laugh at the same time.

With Bridesmaids, Feig and McCarthy made a tremendously entertaining, humane, and honest film about relationships. I’m sure it was a difficult film to create. Making a good comedy isn’t simple. But saying “no” to the opportunity to make a bad one is. And expectations are not the same as invitations; when you know that an artist can do better, because they’ve done it before, it’s not unreasonable to ask for at least the same level of effort next time round. The stories we tell really matter. They shape the limits of what we consider possible.

A director’s cut of Spy may be forthcoming – if it’s limited to the first five minutes, it’ll be a masterpiece. But as it won’t be, we might consider why we keep telling ‘funny’ stories in which violence pays, despite knowing that commercial success and critical acclaim seem to meet each other most often when comedies both not only feel truthful and make us laugh, but reject dehumanizing others in favor of laughing at ourselves.

Gareth Higgins is the Founding Director of Movies and Meaning, a weekly newsletter and regular festival decicated to finding and featuring only the most meaningful of movies. Keep up with him by frequentling his personal website.