Paul Feig
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Paul Feig isn’t the only one directing comedies with women anymore, but that doesn’t make his movies any less special. Two years ago his “The Heat” was the summer’s only female-driven product; “Spy” is the third only a month into the season. (Not that there are that many more en route before September.) Thing is, neither “The Heat” nor “Bridesmaids” acted like political bomb lobbed into the testosterone-heavy multiplexes. Their scrappy presence stood as reminders that there weren’t more like them. And so “Spy” wants to do little more than be a goofy riff on Bond films, only starring Melissa McCarthy, which thankfully isn’t the only joke.

It even takes the job of sending up the language of 007 movies somewhat seriously. Feig isn’t a great technical director, but the opening could pass as a serviceable knockoff, with Jude Law’s Bradley Fine — Americanized and not given a decent name, frankly — infiltrating an impregnable fortress before accidentally killing a deadly mark mid-sneeze. McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is his eyes and ears from an underground, bat-infested homebase. When he’s killed by a fearsome arms dealer, Rose Byrne’s Rayna Boyanov, Susan volunteers herself to go on a mission, arguing that no one knows her face.

As with “The Heat,” “Spy” dotes a bit too much on its generic plot, but it does, like “The Heat,” keep the jokes coming. They’re jokes of surprising, perhaps even unneeded diversity. If she’s underrated at all — and she seems to be in permanent almost-backlash mode — it’s as someone with real versatility. Susan isn’t just a office monkey dropped into a violent globetrotter; sometimes she’s mousy, sometimes she’s playing off her looks, and sometimes she’s weirdly capable, even asskicking. Susan is prone to pratfalls, but she’s also prone to unexpected agility and lightning fast smarts. When the film finally brings Rayna back into the picture for good, Susan tricks her into thinking she’s someone else, someone who communicates through hyperarticulate verbal abuse. (As in “The Heat,” McCarthy holds special hatred for men with light hair.) 

It’s not just The Melissa McCarthy Show. At various turns the film is nearly stolen by Byrne, by Jason Statham and by Miranda Hart, plus, all too briefly, by Allison Janney. Byrne coolly deadpans inspired insults about Susan reminding her of a sad Bulgarian clown. Statham, who started out as a non-violent joke-cracker in “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” mostly calls people vaginas and brags about impossible, absurdist feats. Hart, heretofore an English-only star, fits right in. The spirit is one of competitive camaraderie, everyone pushing each other to silly, sometimes surreal heights. Meanwhile Feig’s script keeps things moving along from set piece to set piece, while his direction makes liberal use of such action movie lingo as speed ramps. There’s even a not bad kitchen duel, where editing, camerawork and action choreography are all moving in lockstep, not even making a joke that one of those fighting was in “Identity Thief.”

“Spy” pushes itself so far that the climax can only seem slightly, though not sharp-jumpingly, and only in comparison to what preceded it and what it promises, insufficient. It needed to go even more OTT, include one more out-of-nowhere element, maybe do one more thing with Statham, whose rogue agent swings in and out of the story, but in the last third disappears for too long. And it must be said, the Feig and Apatow-style movies have absolutely run aground the joke where someone says, “You look like a [hilarious ad-lib].” They tend to be on average amusing, but there’s a sense that the actors are now falling back on it whenever they can’t think of a legitimately fresh gag. That said, sometimes innovation can be overrated. Feig and McCarthy have a good thing going, and they might as well keep doing comedic riffs on other genres, offering an alternative to bro humor without even trying.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge