Magazine | July 6, 2015, Issue

The Essence of Stardom

Melissa McCarthy, the star of the new espionage parody Spy, has distinguished herself of late in ways that fewer and fewer Hollywood actors seem capable of matching. First, her movies really are her movies; second, they make money even when they simply aren’t very good.

These are, of course, very traditional ways to tell who exactly is a movie star. If your movies make money when you’re playing Spiderman or Captain Kirk or headlining Jurassic Universe, the jury should be out on whether you, personally, are actually bringing anyone to the theater. But if your movies open big without a pre-sold concept, it’s a sign that people might actually be coming to see you. And if they open big even in the teeth of negative reviews — well, then it’s fair to suggest that a star is being born.

McCarthy’s ascent to stardom began in 2011, when she was the funniest thing in the (very funny) Bridesmaids, in a supporting part that nicely blended her talents for the ingenuous and the profane. She had a solid television career at that point: years in the cast of Gilmore Girls, and then a sitcom of her own, Mike and Molly. But you might have assumed that her turn in Bridesmaids would have just won her more supporting roles — the kooky friend, the fat girl in the gaggle.

Instead, she swiftly vaulted up a level, co-starring with Sandra Bullock in the lady-cop comedy The Heat and then headlining (with Jason Bateman and Susan Sarandon as her seconds) in 2013’s Identity Thief and 2014’s Tammy. Her collaboration with Bullock was intermittently funny, but I defy you to find a moviegoer who genuinely liked either of the other two movies: They were coarse, gross, dim, beneath her talents, beneath the audience that watched them. Yet they made over $200 million combined.

People just really like Melissa McCarthy, it would seem — and that apparently includes her fellow thespians, because an impressively long list of them shows up in the cast of Spy. Jude Law, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Allison Janney, and Bobby Cannavale are all in on the comic action, as are Miranda Hart and Peter Serafinowicz, names more familiar (for now) in the United Kingdom than they are on this side of the pond. And their presence, one and all, is a big reason this McCarthy vehicle actually deserves its box-office success.

Not that the star herself doesn’t earn it, too. It’s just that, like most comedians (with rare one-man-show exceptions such as Jim Carrey), McCarthy is funniest when she has somebody to play off and play with. When she’s asked to do all the comic work, she tends to overdo things, to flail and founder and reach for the cheapest laughs. What she needs isn’t just a straight man or woman; it’s somebody who can do comic ping-pong at her level, match her insult for insult, or just change the tempo of a scene and swipe a laugh along the way.

She finally has that in almost every scene of Spy, because just about all her co-stars can deliver it. The list starts with Law, playing a James Bond wannabe named Bradley Fine who derailed the once-promising career of McCarthy’s CIA agent, Susan Cooper, by persuading her that she should be his desk jockey, checking satellite images and talking in his earpiece while he carves his way through bad guys overseas. She was persuaded because she’s in love with him, of course, a reality that he blithely ignores . . . until the day that a mission goes wrong, and not only he but every other field agent ends up having his cover blown.

Under such circumstances, somebody has to go track down the loose nuke that the Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, haughty and hilarious) is peddling all over Europe. So a reluctant CIA chief (Janney) sends Susan on her first real mission — with the cover identity, naturally, of a midwestern cat lady on a rare European getaway.

Once on the ground, she’s shadowed by Statham’s rogue agent, who quit in protest when Susan was tapped for the job in­stead of him, and who delivers endless macho monologues about his absurd feats in the field. And she’s “aided” by the tall, stumbling Nancy (Hart), her gawky agency pal, and by Aldo (Serafinowicz), a motor-mouthed Italian lothario who gives Susan all the sexual attention (and then some) that her old boss denied her.

Eventually, inevitably, Susan sheds both the cat-lady disguise and the mild manners of a desk jockey, and starts dishing out both the necessary physical punishment and the insults (with Byrne’s Rayna hurling them right back) that McCarthy always sells so well.

They don’t all land, and some of the jokes and running gags fall flat. This is, in the end, a spy-movie parody, and the novelty of having a pleasantly plump, cheerfully profane woman as the fish-out-of-water lead doesn’t change the essential predictability of the form.

But that’s why they call them star vehicles. They don’t have to be flawless or groundbreaking; they just have to do right by their lead. And for McCarthy, a still-unlikely-seeming movie star, Spy does exactly that.

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