Friday, June 5, 2015

Spy: Should have been kept under cover

Spy (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for violence, gore, fleeting graphic nudity, and relentless profanity and coarse dialogue

By Derrick Bang 

Only in Hollywood could somebody get paid big bucks to write this sort of puerile swill.

Only in Hollywood could several levels of (presumably) savvy studio execs have seen any merit in this limp-noodle secret agent spoof.

With another mission behind them, debonair CIA agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) and his
desk-bound handler, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), enjoy a celebratory dinner. Alas,
Bradley has no idea how much his colleague secretly pines for him ... even thought her
overtures couldn't be more obvious.
Only in Hollywood could a reasonably talented comedian have been “promoted” from successful supporting status, and stuffed into a string of starring roles, where she flails helplessly.

Only in Hollywood would such an individual keep getting additional shots in the barrel, abusing her fans with junk such as Identity Thief and Tammy.

And, just to spread the blame evenly, only in America would such fans continue to reward her efforts by buying tickets. An overall U.S. gross of $84.4 million for Tammy? $134.4 million for Identity Thief?


I guess H.L. Mencken’s 1926 observation remains even truer today: No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.

Or, to quote Walt Kelly’s comic strip character Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Melissa McCarthy has been a valued member of ensemble productions such as Bridesmaids and television’s Gilmore Girls. She and Billy Gardell continue to be a great team on television’s Mike & Molly. She was refreshingly sympathetic in a straight supporting part, in last year’s St. Vincent.

But a little of McCarthy goes a very long way, which is why she’s best used in measured, intermittent doses. When forced to carry an entire film, her extremely narrow acting range becomes glaringly visible; she huffs and puffs from one scene to the next, angrily spitting out her lines, as if daring us to find her anything less than hilarious.

So okay, Melissa; I took that dare a few films back, and I’ll take it anew. You’re still not funny. Your go-to movie persona has become a mean-spirited, potty-mouthed shrike. Your recent work isn’t merely un-funny; it’s sad and pathetic. I cannot imagine why you don’t demand better material, but hey: As long as the money keeps rolling in, I guess it doesn’t matter, right?

Granted, you’re not wholly at fault in this case. Most of the blame for this new film belongs to writer/director Paul Feig, who apparently did this work all by his widdle self. I’m sure he spent at least 15 minutes concocting this twaddle. Strip away the profanity from every character’s lines, remove the juvenile vulgar humor — the sort of coarse one-upsmanship exchanged by 12-year-old boys while surfing for porn behind closed bedroom doors — and we’d be left with a mostly silent movie.

Which would have been a vast improvement.

Truly successful parody isn’t nearly as easy as most screenwriters seem to assume, and espionage parody is particularly difficult. The cinematic graveyard is littered with the corpses of countless failed spy spoofs, dating back to when Sean Connery debuted as the iconic James Bond. For every successful Our Man Flint, we endured scores of misfires such as Operation Kid Brother and The Last of the Secret Agents?

More recently, such junk has included Spy Hard, The Tuxedo and The Spy Next Door. Yes, even Jackie Chan has gotten involved in such failures.

And, now, Feig and McCarthy have unleashed Spy. More’s the pity.

In fairness, things are modestly all right, for a bit. A slick prologue introduces ultra-suave undercover CIA operative Bradley Fine (Jude Law), as he’s guided through a tricky mission by back-at-Langley, desk-bound computer handler Susan Cooper (McCarthy), a working relationship that seems to have become a new spy cliché, in the wake of the Annie/Auggie dynamic in television’s Covert Affairs.

Alas, Fine rather botches the mission’s key priority, leaving a small tactical nuclear weapon in the hands of volatile rich-bitch Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who intends to sell it to the highest bidder. Alas, all of the CIA’s top agents have had their covers blown, much to the frustration of chief Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney).

That leaves Cooper, who while as trained as anybody else, never has tackled a field assignment ... and, ergo, wouldn’t be recognized by the baddies. But the carefully structured “observe and report” parameters of Cooper’s mission are too much for disgruntled agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who remains convinced that she’ll screw things up.

Statham is this film’s one saving grace, in a role that cleverly lampoons his traditional tough-guy persona. Ford is forever larding past accomplishments with details that become increasingly ridiculous, as when he “temporarily” lost his left arm, but then used his right arm to stitch it back in place. As this film lurches from one international locale to another, we gradually realize that Ford’s confidence is far removed from his actual competence, which becomes mildly amusing.

Whether in the office or when initially dispatched overseas, as long as Cooper behaves in the insecure and meek manner that everybody expects of her — particularly when partnered with similarly complacent gal pal Nancy Artingstall (Miranda Hart) — the film remains on fitfully enjoyable ground. Alas, halfway through the first act, Cooper decides she’ll fare better if she gets her rage on, and then it’s a race to the bottom of the toilet tank, with McCarthy leading the charge.

What follows is clumsy, to say the least. Feig offers little reason for the shifts to various international locales, just as character motivations remain impenetrable. Nothing makes sense, as every plot hiccup is no more than an excuse for McCarthy to waddle angrily through crowds of attractively dressed extras, or exchange another round of rapid-fire epithets with all involved.

And, just when you thought things couldn’t get more weird or pointless, we get a whole detour constructed around a guest appearance by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. At which point, rational viewers can only throw up their hands in bewilderment.

The story’s key players are more caricature than character, starting with Byrne’s über-spoiled, waspishly condescending Rayna: perpetually bored and unimpressed, lacking any sense of humor. When dressed to the nines and carrying herself in haughty, runway-model mode, Byrne is somewhat amusing ... but that impression vanishes abruptly every time Rayna unleashes a torrent of profanity. This is dialogue?

I guess Feig figured we’d find humor in the disparity between Rayna’s cultured appearance and her dock-worker vocabulary. Doesn’t work that way.

Then there’s Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz), a loquacious and licentious lecher who lusts after Cooper while demonstrating his driving skills. (Cue the first of this film’s two token vehicular chases.) Serafinowicz’s character becomes downright repulsive, and — again — Feig clearly believes the guy is a laugh riot.

The usually dependable Bobby Cannavale is utterly wasted as Sergio De Luca, an egocentric intermediary hired by Rayna to offload the nuke to (so we’re told) a mucho-nasty Russian oligarch named Dudaev (Richard Brake). Cannavale does his best to have fun with what he’s given, but that’s an impossible task.

Poor Hart, whose imposing 6-foot-1 presence will be recognized immediately from her wonderful role as Chummy Noakes on TV’s Call the Midwife, is the worst casualty of Feig’s numb-nuts script. Artingstall is initially droll precisely because she’s a prim alternative to the rest of these flamboyant grotesques, but by the third act Hart is slinging crude double-entendres like everybody else. And looking quite embarrassed in the process.

Just to cover all possible bases, Feig also lards this production with considerable violence and unexpected flashes of gore, the latter best represented when one poor fellow’s entire throat dissolves after swallowing an acid-laced cocktail. Nor does Feig overlook the fallback of lowest-common-denominator desperation: projectile vomiting.

And good God .... what’s with the gratuitous, graphic, pointlessly disgusting selfies of Ford’s nether regions? Seriously?

Other bits of business are simply baffling, most notably a running gag that finds the Langley control center overrun by rats and bats. This isn’t merely dumb, it’s poorly executed; Feig apparently believes that we’ll confuse tiny mice with their much larger ratty cousins. Seriously?

At a butt-numbing 120 minutes, Feig’s brainless waste of celluloid is much, much too long. By the third act, we’re begging for mercy, but no: Feig keeps dragging things out, introducing fresh complications and hammering overworked sight gags. Even the story’s conclusion, when it finally lurches into view, doesn’t know when to conclude; the congratulatory back-slapping goes on and on and on and on.

I’d love to think Spy will be the final nail in McCarthy’s big-screen starring coffin ... but history — and her slate of upcoming projects — suggest otherwise.

Oh, frabjous day ... callooh, callay. (Not!)

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