Saturday, June 6, 2015

"Spy": A Feminist Espionage Film?

Now In Theaters
Melissa McCarthy is one of those actresses who has made her career in pretty much the only way a fat woman can make it in Hollywood: by being comically self-deprecating.  This often leaves her in supporting roles to the more classically attractive Hollywood stars, and she’s paid plenty of dues to succeed as a recognizable actress.  Now, in Spy, she shines on the center stage, and while it isn’t the greatest film around, it is certainly effective in demonstrating the deficiencies in not just Hollywood casting choices, but also in how the world treats women who don’t hold a certain body type.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a support agent for the CIA who works in an office pool of (exclusively women) support agents, ensuring that their partner James Bond archetypes are properly equipped in the field.  When the identities of all the field agents are compromised, Susan volunteers to be put into the field to track down a rogue nuclear weapon.  As she travels between European locales, she discovers a self-confidence she never knew she had.

The greatest thing about this film is that, for once, McCarthy herself isn’t the punchline of most jokes, but rather the film’s biggest joke is that her entire support team is constantly underestimating her abilities.  In a fictional profession like genre-trope spying which is dominated by men and female characters designed to attract the male gaze, it’s remarkable to see a film utilize McCarthy in a way that demonstrates she is capable of being an action lead and is able to be empowered and attractive while doing so.  And the film’s primary source of comedy comes from the fact that her co-workers are so shocked that she can do anything just as amazing, if not more so, than her male counterparts.

However, despite this fantastically feminist portrayal, this isn’t as astounding as, say, Mad Max: Fury Road.  Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but whereas Fury Road was both decidedly feminist and a brilliantly composed action movie, Spy is merely an adequate action-comedy with feminist subtext.  The action beats are well-executed, and the film serves up a decent, if forgettable, espionage narrative, but the biggest failure is that the film’s gags are consistently tepid.  Almost none of them are bad or offensive, but neither does the film encourage much uproarious laughter.  It hovers around a low chuckle, as the tonal shifts from scene to scene make it feel more like an action film that occasionally breaks out into comedy than a nuanced combination of the genres.

But still, I enjoyed Spy.  It would be a pretty forgettable movie were it not for McCarthy’s lead performance, and quite frankly, that’s enough this time.  I would love to see her tackle roles like this in the future, as she certainly has the charisma to lead a film if she has the right talent behind her.  It’s a slow week in the summer theatrical release schedule, so if you’re looking for a good movie this weekend, you could do a lot worse than Spy.

Is feminism on the rise in cinema?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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