One of the recurring jokes in Paul Feig’s hilarious action comedy Spy, is that Melissa McCarthy’s CIA desk jockey-turned-international super agent Susan Cooper is frequently bummed out that she has to dress dowdy on her mission. Rather than being dolled up in sexy espionage gear, she’s made to look like a crazy cat lady, or someone’s fanny pack-toting aunt vacationing in Europe. It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by even the most ardent of McCarthy fans: Why do they insist on making such a beautiful leading lady look so homely? The supremely talented McCarthy has never shied away from physical comedy, or looking “drab” to get laughs, and why should she? She’s really good at it. (Oh, yeah, and male comedians have been doing it forever.) But the genius of Spy is that it not only allows McCarthy to play both ends of the dress-up spectrum (she eventually gets to be the sexy agent), but it also allows her to showcase everything that has made audiences connect with her in the first place. She’s achingly human and likable, but she’s still a no-holds-barred comedic scene-stealer, who can drop an F-bomb with gusto and kick some serious ass in a knife fight. When we meet McCarthy’s character Susan Cooper, she’s a smart, but reserved analyst who is hopelessly in love with her charming, aloof partner (Jude Law). He’s oblivious, and at times even insensitive, to her feelings. At one point he presents her with a small gift box, which holds what can only be described as the most depressing piece of jewelry ever. But in those moments, we don’t pity her — even when she pities herself. Instead, we commiserate with that feeling of being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back.
Law and McCarthy’s dynamic is just one in a variety of relationships McCarthy has with men in the movie. The film flips every conventional trope on its head. And hold on to your hats — McCarthy is even an object of affection for some of these guys. Neither Feig nor McCarthy ever shy away from the fact that we live in a world where conventional beauty standards reign supreme, and a woman like Susan isn’t what we’re used to when it comes to our femmes fatales or romantic interests. Even as the heroine, she gets sorry looks from bystanders and gets called a “lunch lady” by Jason Statham’s fellow rogue spy. But Susan also spends a bulk of the movie turning down a wannabe Casanova (Peter Serafinowicz). Most refreshing of all, McCarthy’s character isn’t motivated by these come-ons and putdowns; rather they’re a vessel for her to discover her true self and untapped potential. And then there’s the way in which Spy handles female-female interactions. If Mad Max: Fury Road paved the way for the sisters-are-doing-it-for-each-other empowerment movement this summer, then Spy happily runs with it. As McCarthy has proven before in Gilmore Girls and Bridesmaids, a woman is only as awesome as the other awesome women she surrounds herself with. Here, her best friend at work is the sweet, gangly Nancy (Miranda Hart) who, like Susan, can often be the subject of ridicule rather than respect. They always have each other’s backs. And they always get the last laugh. Even Susan’s nemesis, Rayna (Rose Byrne, who is delightful), ends up becoming more of a frenemy by the end. What I’m getting at is that with Spy, we finally have a movie worthy of McCarthy’s full range of talent. It’s progressive and groundbreaking without being preachy. It’s played for big laughs without pandering for cheap ones. And it’s just a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Whether you can plant yourself in McCarthy’s shoes, or you just want a summer popcorn movie that smartly plays with conventions, Spy ushers in a new era of action heroine that’s long overdue. It couldn’t have been entrusted to a more deserving person. And damned if she doesn’t look great doing it.