TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new espionage comedy "Spy," which stars Melissa McCarthy and features Jude Law and Rose Byrne. McCarthy's breakout performance in the 2011 comedy "Bridesmaids" earned her a supporting actress Oscar nomination.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Back when Hugh Grant made his name as an adorably abashed romantic lead in "Four Weddings And A Funeral" I remember a showbiz paper reporting the one question on the lips of studio executives - can Hugh Grant hold a gun? That's still what executives ask when an actor gives a breakthrough performance. And it's even more important now when so much revenue comes from foreign markets that prefer action over comedy. The first thing that happened to Melissa McCarthy after "Bridesmaids" was that she was paired with Sandra Bullock in the female buddy cop movie "The Heat." Now she has her own big budget action vehicle, "Spy," which reunites her with "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat" director Paul Feig.
The central joke of the movie is what if we made a comic actor who looks like McCarthy a James Bond-like undercover secret agent? It's a good joke similar to lots of movies over the last, well, century from at least Buster Keaton in which hapless clowns are forced to impersonate manly heroes. The difference, obviously, is McCarthy is a woman, and so there's a female disempowerment backstory.
Her character, Susan Cooper, has settled into the role of a subordinate, a headquarters-based CIA analyst assigned to help a 007-like smoothie she adores played by Jude Law. The story calls for Susan to go into the field because, unlike the other agents, her identity is unknown to Rose Byrne's Rayna, the heir of a recently deceased Eastern European arms kingpin. The disguises the agency gives Susan are ostentatiously frumpy, and she's warned to observe and not act. But if she didn't act, there'd be no movie. By definition, films like "Spy" are mixed bags lurching between slapstick and violence. And this one is unusually mixed. Feig moved the boundary posts on TV with "Freaks and Geeks" but he settled into Hollywood conventionality and apart from a gory fight scene in a kitchen between McCarthy and an assassin, he doesn't really hit his action marks. Even a lot of the comedy is in a crude, whacking style.
Early on, Susan is mousy and feels inferior, requiring McCarthy to stammer stupidly opposite Law who's good, despite obvious material. For a while, McCarthy is paired with another overlooked female analyst played by the tall, flamboyantly gawky British comedian Miranda Hart. The movie will win the lovable Hart a new audience, but the timing of her scenes with McCarthy is horrible. Jason Statham is a droll presence in conventional action movies - his slow, cockney burn, a delight. But as a macho braggart agent who turns out to be a stumble bum, he tries too hard to be funny and kills the jokes. Oh, but things improve with the arrival of Rose Byrne, an actress who seems to be able to do anything. Her breezy, mean-girl putdowns are exquisitely underplayed. After Susan buys a fancy gown, slips into a luxe casino and ends up saving Rayna's life, the villainess takes her aboard a private airplane and attempts to bond.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPY")
MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Susan Cooper) Why are you being so nice to me? It can't just be because I remind you of some sad, Bulgarian clown.
ROSE BYRNE: (As Rayna Boyanov) You remind me of my mother.
MCCARTHY: (As Susan Cooper) Oh, really? You know that, I mean, you and I are - you and I are pretty close in age.
BYRNE: (As Rayna Boyanov) You're funny. It's the Bulgarian clown in you.
MCCARTHY: (As Susan Cooper) OK.
BYRNE: (As Rayna Boyanov) She was marvelous, but she was different - eccentric like you are. The moment I saw you standing there in that abortion of a dress as if to say this is what I've got, world. It's hideous, but it's mine. This was her.
MCCARTHY: (As Susan Cooper) Hey, how'd you get that picture of me? I look amazing. Hello, doppelganger.
BYRNE: (As Rayna Boyanov) She was the only person I could ever trust.
MCCARTHY: (As Susan Cooper) Well, here's to your mom.
BYRNE: (As Rayna Boyanov) To my mother and to you.
MCCARTHY: (As Susan Cooper) And here's to you. I mean, you may never be as wise as an owl, but you'll always be a hoot to me.
BYRNE: (As Rayna Boyanov) What a stupid f****** toast. You're delightful.
MCCARTHY: (As Susan Cooper) As are you.
EDELSTEIN: What saves "Spy," apart from the arrival of Rose Byrne, is that halfway through, McCarthy gets to drop her character's mousiness and become the foulmouthed insult comedian that made her famous. She can spin your head with her timing. The only other performer to match her line-for-line is British TV's best kept secret, Peter Serafinowicz, as an Italian agent who takes every opportunity to grab Susan and attempt to make wild love to her. Serafinowicz's diction is in the strange, over-deliberate style of Christopher Walken. He makes even his bad lines hit you like wobbly sinker balls. "Spy" keeps throwing stuff at you - jokes, chases, violence and finally wears out your resistance. It will be a huge hit. It will cement McCarthy's star in the firmament and the Hollywood executives who had their doubts about starring a woman so heavy in a big budget movie will smile. Melissa McCarthy can indeed hold a gun.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed like yesterday's interview about the encrypted underworld on the Internet that hides black markets, trolls and pornographers, or hear our recent interviews with people like Louis C.K., Tom Brokaw, Sally Mann and David Oyelowo, check out our podcast which you can find at itunes.com/freshair or where ever you download your podcasts.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Myers, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Therese Madden. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. WHYY's chief content officer is Christine Dempsey. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.