Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), the overlooked heroine of Spy, is your average office worker. She sits at a desk, taking the occasional break for a colleague's birthday cake or happy hour drinks. She has a work bestie, Nancy (Call the Midwife's Miranda Hart), as well as a work crush. And she wears the occasional tasteful cardigan. But Susan's office happens to be the CIA, and her job happens to involve providing support to agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) via an earpiece while he's out doing perilous things. Still, the point stands that Susan is a worker bee sure to be hilariously out of her element when she's thrown into the field.
Except not exactly. Spy is written and directed by Bridesmaids' Paul Feig, who has become a patron saint of not just of putting funny women on screen, but creating roles for them that offer the kind of emotional nuance that's rarely bothered with in big comedies. Susan does become an unlikely spy who finds her way onto a mission after Fine goes down and his killer, Rayna Boyanov (a strong Rose Byrne, who generates laughs while maintaining an expression of just having smelled something terrible), reveals she knows the identity of all of the CIA's active agents.
Susan is inexperienced, but not inept, and Spy — a haphazard but satisfying comedy with an occasional melancholy streak — isn't so simple as a fish-out-of-water story about how an analyst ends up floundering her way into an international weapons deal. It is, instead, the story of someone who's put herself in the corner. It's an espionage spoof, but it's also a movie about how Susan learns to lean in.
McCarthy sells this revelation by playing Susan as initially subdued and wistful, a woman who's resigned herself to going unseen. She works closely with Fine, whose every word makes her dimple in delight as she guides him through an event in Bulgaria involving tuxedos, gunmen, and a Baccarat champagne flute, drained and hurled dramatically away.
When Fine takes Susan out to a thank-you dinner, the fact that she's in love with him is as transparent as his platonic but obliviously genuine affection for her. She's flustered by the high-end restaurant (she tries to eat a hand towel), but she's flustered by the agents in general, a glamorous bunch played by Morena Baccarin, Will Yun Lee, and a scene-stealingly good Jason Statham as Rick Ford, the would-be toughest man in the world, and the deliverer of several fantastic monologues about his past adventures.
Susan volunteers to help track down Rayna in order to avenge Fine, and gets scoffed at and called a "lunch lady" when she points out that technically, she's a field-certified agent. But when her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney), pulls up footage from her training days, we see Susan's actually pretty damn formidable (and possibly in possession of some rage issues underneath the mild exterior).
Elaine immediately guesses that Fine, despite being Susan's mentor at the academy, convinced her to take the support position. "I really thought he made some great points," Susan stammers. Fine isn't demonized for recruiting talent he admired, but the fact that Susan sidelined herself due to a lack of confidence makes her ungainly transition to country-hopping spook all the more pleasurable. It's not really her doubters who have kept her back — it's that she never tried in the first place.
And Spy doesn't allow anything Susan does to be effortless, which makes her hard-won triumphs even sweeter. Susan may prove herself a pretty good spy, but she's not a dignified or glamorous one. The spy gear she's given is disguised as stool softeners and antifungal spray. There's a running joke about how every new identity she's assigned is that of a helmet-haired cat lady or unemployed telemarketer ("I look like someone's homophobic aunt!" she moans). When she does doll herself up to seduce a swaggering, villainous Bobby Cannavale, she's ejected from the room before she even gets a chance to try, and instead stumbles into Rayna, who tells Susan her "hideous dress" is "just hysterical."
It's actually something of a letdown when McCarthy makes the transition into a variation on the self-assured bruiser that's made her famous in past comedies, like Bridesmaids and The Heat, which is also from Feig. Yes, it's funny when she bellows and bashes people, but it's also familiar, while the long-suffering type Susan's been until that point has been so sharply, bittersweetly entertaining. But even when she's being tough, Susan is denied the chance to look cool — the most memorable of the movie's fight scenes takes place in a kitchen, and finds her fending off a baddie with a baguette and a skillet. She doesn't get to be delicate, and she doesn't get to be daunting, but she does get the job done.
The best part of Spy is that it's immensely fond of its main character without giving her too sugarcoated a journey. She's no Mata Hari, and she may not get the guy (though she does get some) — but that doesn't mean she can't be a different sort of badass, the kind that's a reminder of McCarthy's range beyond just physical comedy. It's all that concern about being the right type that can keep a girl from trying in the first place. Besides, no one suspects the cat lady.