Sunday, August 30, 2015

on spy comedies

we went to see Spy, because it was one of the few movies in years that my mom actually wanted to go see in the theater. I personally didn't really have an interest.  My comedic tastes are more bitter than most but it's not like I don't enjoy absurd or silly movies. My favorites range from The Jerk to Dogma, from Dr. Strangelove to Ace Ventura. But most modern comedies have a sort of "cheap" feel to me, like they lack a certain sharpness or subtlety. I don't know if writing quality has actually gone down, audiences have gotten dumber, or I'm just getting older and crotchety. Regardless, when I watch a modern comedy, it often feels like keys are being dangled in front of me, like you would to make a baby laugh. A good example would be this scene from The Hangover that I mentioned in a previous article. While it was a good movie overall, I think scenes like this kind of point out what I don't like. Like I said before, you can kind of see the "writing" in Zach Galafianiakis' performance; the hair shake is way overstated, he has his elbow out like a little teapot, he's fat but wearing a tight shirt, and he responds to criticism of his man-bag with absolute, unshaken confidence.

So I was a little skeptical of this movie. Here's the trailer, and if you are not a fan of the type of comedy I described above, it didn't look all that promising. In fact, it kind of looks bad here.

It doesn't help that one of the hardest things to pull off cinematically is a spy comedy. Reason being, mixing serious spy movies like James Bond with comedy typically requires that you do one of two things: (1) Absurd Parody, or (2) Strike a Balance. For option (1), think Austin Powers, or Spy Hard. In these silly-type movies, most of the time, the world is governed by the laws of slapstick comedy. People can be shot multiple times and get up. I've seen some movies actually do this as the joke itself, like it's absurd that the character being shot absolutely will not die. It's not a hard thing to eff-up, because Bond films have ventured into ridiculous territory themselves, and are well lent to parody.

Then there's option (2), Strike a Balance. Movies that try to strike this balance usually turn out "just okay"; think Johnny EnglishGet Smart, or I Spy. These weren't bad movies, but they weren't great either. If you own any of them, it's because they were in the $5.99 And Under bin at Walmart, and they're probably still shrink-wrapped on your shelf. When you venture outside of that realm of slapsticky, Mel Brooks-y comedy and try to do something that strikes a balance, it makes it hard to work in jokes. It's usually because the real world's rules govern the film; if people get shot, they die. You can work humor into that kind of thing in a number of ways, sure, but it's trickier. I think the biggest issue is getting the world of serious intelligence-gathering agencies, and undercover spy work, to lend themselves to gag-producing scenarios. Like there's usually some difficulty in explaining how an all-seeing, all-powerful organization would ever put the (usually bumbling) hero in charge of a mission that has millions of lives at stake.

Here's an example: In I Spy, Eddie Murphy's character is worked in because he's a professional boxer, and the rich villain happens to be sponsoring his next fight. The US Government needs Eddie's help in order to get close. Other movies will sometimes have the NSA or CIA (or whatever) get wiped out (or captured, or otherwise incapacitated) by the villain, except for the hero, who was on a coffee break or something. They usually have a low-level position and are now the only one left who knows what's happening and is in a position to do anything about it. Some films have actually actually pulled it off, but it's rare. One that comes to mind is Spies Like Us with Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase -- See it if you haven't. It's directed by John Landis, who did Coming to America and Trading Places.

My hopes weren't all that high for Spy for all of the above reasons. The title, even, seemed like a bad indicator. But those low hopes were quickly raised after we sat down and I saw, in the opening credits, that Paul Feig wrote and directed this movie. It was like when my sister dragged me to a pre-screening/panel for the show Community, because she loved Joel McHale (she won a Facebook contest to get in). I had little interest in the show, but minutes before panel started, I found out that Dan Harmon created it. I freaking loved Dan Harmon's work on Channel 101, and AcceptableTV. He does great, off-beat, clever comedies, and Community is actually a great show. So the talent behind the talent is usually a saving grace.

For Spy, if you don't know who Paul Feig is, I'll try and help you remember; you probably know who he is. He has bit parts here and there, but is most known for directing Bridesmaids, creating Freaks and Geeks. He also played the skinny counselor in one of my favorite movies of all time, Heavyweights. He blows a microchip and saves the dance with boogie fever. You owe it to yourself to see this movie; Judd Apatow was involved in writing it, and Ben Stiller plays an over-the-top fitness nut who buys and manages a fat camp. It's a live-action 90s Disney movie, a sub-sub-genre which brought us The Mighty Ducks and Cool Runnings. Here's Paul Feig's biggest scene in that movie:

So my expectations immediately went up. I was less familiar, however, with Melissa McCarthy. I'd heard her name before, and have since come to learn she's actually Molly from Mike and Molly. The only person from that show I know is Billy Gardell, of whom I'm a fan through his stand-up career. I don't really watch the show but I've heard it's good; that's all I can really say. Luckily, she carried the movie just fine, and the movie itself was surprisingly entertaining. It does aim for that real-world action feel, but somehow pulls off its comedy shenanigans very well. It suffers a lot of the balance problems I mentioned earlier, but the humor is good enough that you focus on that instead. Without spoiling too much, the way they explain our unlikely heroine being in charge of an important mission, is that she's got a personal investment, and the agency (I think it's the CIA) needs an unknown agent to keep their profile low.

A brief, spoiler-free summary tells you that the movie is about Melissa McCarthy being sent on a strictly-reconnaissance mission, but circumstance and chance happenings keep pulling her deeper into the case. She continues to go undercover and gains the enemies' trust, until she's working side-by-side with them. That's more or less how they keep the action rolling and explain how a low-level agent keeps getting involved with tracking down nukes. And it works. It's just enough of a plot to string together the gags and jokes, which are really where the movie shines anyway. It's both well written, well cast, and well acted. I don't want to give away the best jokes, but I will say that Paul Feig has a talent for writing comedy that speaks to the part of you that feels "uncool". There's a running gag where McCarthy's character, Susan, gets an incredibly lame fake identity every time she gets transferred to a new location. Almost every one of them is a lonely cat lady who has big glasses and an awful perm. As I write this I'm realizing it sounds horribly hack-ish, so you'll just have to trust me -- it plays well on screen. Melissa McCarthy and the rest of the cast just make it work.

"Trust me"

So it does go the Get Smart route. The movie, more or less, takes place in the real world, but the characters and situations are the weirdest the real world is likely to ever, ever produce. Jason Statham plays an over-the-top badass spy the way you'd expect someone like Rob Corddry to (Think about how he acted in Harold and Kumar 2 or Hot Tub Time Machine). But the fact that it's a badass like Jason Statham actually playing the part makes it so much funnier than if they had gotten a character actor. He's amazingly fitting for it; not every "tough guy" can lampoon his own acting style, make it work, and is actually willing to do it. Jude Law plays the suave English gentleman spy the same way. They could have just gone with an unknown character actor and not missed a beat, but they went with a guy you could actually see playing that character in a Hollywood movie, and it helps make the movie more convincing. That these two actors got on board really speaks to how well the script was written.

So yes, you should definitely go see this movie. It's not every day a spy-comedy get it right. The promo materials don't do a good enough job of telling you how funny it actually is. You'll laugh; I promise. 


  1. i know exactly what you mean about that "cheap feel". so i'll take your word for it and check it out. is it something you wouldn't mind watching in theaters twice?

  2. I almost never watch anything in the theater twice (even movies I like and/or love), but if somebody just happened to drag me to it again, I wouldn't mind. I also wouldn't mind owning a copy, once it's out on DVD or something. I own movies more for lending-out purposes than my own viewing, but it's good enough for me to recommend to others.


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