Spy – 4.5 stars

Melissa McCarthy blew the doors off of Bridesmaids, and that was in a very strong ensemble. Since that time, she’s taken several whacks at a lead or co-lead role (Identity Thief, Tammy, The Heat) and the results have been blah. In the first two of those movies, McCarthy played up the grotesque, as if to say, “Yes, I know I’m fat, but wait until you see me fat and disgusting and humiliated.” It was a complete reversal from her character in Bridesmaids, who acted as if her weight was an advantage, an intriguing sexy charm, only to reveal to a self-pitying Kristen Wiig that her arrival at such self-confidence was no easy road. In this, McCarthy was hilarious and touching. In Tammy and Identity Thief, she was gross, charmless and, unsurprisingly, not funny.

McCarthy should thank the stars for writer-director Paul Feig, who also directed Bridesmaids, because he leads her back to her strengths. As CIA office minder for the James Bondian Bradley Fine (Jude Law), her secret agent exploits are limited to getting Fine out of jams while talking in his earpiece.  Of course, she’s in love with him, a love that is unrequited but deep nonetheless. When Fine is killed, McCarthy goes out into the field to avenge him, tangling with a fellow agent who is dismissive of her skills (a very funny Jason Statham), a horny Italian liaison on the ground (Peter Serafinowicz, who damn near steals the movie), and the arch villain Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, who may be the hardest working woman in show biz). For each of these characters, Feig writes very clever bits, and McCarthy plays off of their barbs beautifully. The result is a bit of Austin Powers and a bit of Bond at its most campy, consistently interspersed with crisp and amusing banter and a few laugh-out-loud set pieces. It’s all held together because you like McCarthy and instead of reveling in her misfortune, she exhibits wit and pluck and you root for her to rise above each indignity (the worst of which are the increasingly disparaging “undercover” personalities she is assigned).  Great fun.

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