Spy is one of those movies that saddens me. Hilariously funny, the script by Paul Feig, who also directed, often achieves its humor by using cheap tricks. Those tricks involve foul—usually scatological or sexual—cursing, sleazy imagery, and demeaning jokes about everything from fat people to penis size. I wouldn’t be so bothered, if the movie just plain ol’ weren’t funny, but it is. Melissa McCarthy, for whom Feig wrote the screenplay, is her typical, perfect self, when it comes to delivery and style. She really is one of the best comic actresses around. The movie’s best comic surprises, though, come from its three other principal comic actors: Jason Statham, Rose Byrne and Miranda Hart. They are superb in their supporting roles, and Byrne virtually steals the movie.

Statham of course is the super-spy/assassin/etc., bad/good guy of a thousand action movies. Always as tough as it is possible—and too often impossible—to be, in Spy he spends the entire movie spoofing himself and his typical macho personality by playing a buffoon of a spy, who thinks himself to be the best and is really the worst of the CIA’s elite corps. Thankfully, too, his dialogue is impressively devoid of the sexual and scatological references found in much of the rest of the dialogue. His jokes are silly, but it’s his delivery that makes them so funny. I wish the other characters had been written so well.

Hart is completely unknown to American audiences and plays McCarthy’s CIA sidekick so well that it appears her part was written up to include more screen time as the movie went on. Again largely self-deprecating because she is a tall, gangly woman without a great deal of natural beauty, she is nevertheless a wonderful comedienne with great timing and a strong sense of her own physical presence and how it can contribute to the joke. She often smiles, showing off a row of crooked teeth that would send any American mother racing to the dentist, and just at the time, when the viewer needs it. She plays her role to the hilt, jumping Fifty Cent in a concert scene that was worth the price of admission.

But Byrne is unmatched as the Eastern European daughter of a mobster, who wants to sell a nuclear bomb to terrorists. Dressed to the nines but acting like Scarface at every moment, right and left consigning henchmen who fail to everlasting punishment, she plays her part so well one is actually afraid of her until the silliness of the moment reminds again that this is a comedy, and the viewer realizes how firmly the Australian actress must have her tongue planted in her cheek. She is perfect in the role and throws herself into it fully. Again, it is worth it just to go to this movie to see her act.

Back to the laugh factor. Quentin Tarantino once famously said that in Pulp Fiction, his goal was to have at any given moment one-third of the audience diving under their seat from fear, one-third falling off their seat from laughter, and one-third doing both. That seems to me evil. Fear should be real, not funny, because it should be directed at the evil in the world, even if it is the fictional evil of film.

Here, though, it’s not fearful things that are being made funny, but disgusting ones. The laughs are too easy to come by, when they are the jokes one can hear from a thousand foul-mouthed comedians doing stand-up in a thousand places every night in America. Sure, sometimes disgusting things can be very funny, but I like those jokes to be the very few and far between jokes, sprinkled into a dialogue that has smart, well-crafted jokes that form the backbone of the comedy. Once again, check out a movie I reviewed a few days ago in this space, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, if you want comedy that’s really good. Or watch a 1930’s comedy or two.

Drew Trotter

June 22, 2015

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