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Like Funyuns, Melissa McCarthy is an acquired taste. In her least delicate projects, she vaults around the frame, sharting and cursing to the apparent delight of squealing audiences that I just don’t relate to. Even in Paul Feig‘s Spy – a film that affords her at least an attempt at a three-dimensional character – a wide margin of the comedy is rooted in McCarthy’s heft and just how riotous it is to see a fat lady try to do normal lady things. Tee-hee.

As with McCarthy projects past, Spy projects a cipher of reality in which fantastical things transpire in the name of “comedy.” McCarthy attempts to mount a European motorbike but it flops over. In footage showing her spy academy training, she flips and rolls with the best of them before punching nuts like a cracked-up monkey. She even fails to glide over the roof of an automobile in a scene literally aped from Feig’s The Heat. It’s funny because she’s fat and little more. I wish there were more to it than that, but there’s not.

With Bridesmaids, The Heat and now Spy behind them and Ghostbusters on the horizon, Feig and McCarthy have cooked up some kind of unbreakable collaborative bond. Their partnership is odd to say the least – being betwixt an aged, three-piece wearing gentleman and a scuzzy, willing-to-do-anything plumpette – but like other talented individuals who have failed to see their way out of a faltering relationship (ahem, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton), Feig and McCarthy continue to be just the bee’s knees to one another. Feig’s gushing introduction of McCarthy at the SXSW premiere (“My favorite person in the world”) left little to doubt as to the kinship shared between the two. It’s all good to be BFFs but maybe a skosh of constructive criticism wouldn’t hurt.

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Consider the face-palming failure that was McCarthy’s long-gestated dream project (Tammy). With that in mind, I for one have serious doubts for McCarthy’s comic sensibilities and with what I’ve seen of her – from Identity Theft to Tammy – I just don’t see the comic star that some envision her as. It’s true that Feig once lead her to a (totally undeserved) Oscar nomination but maybe it’s time for this red sea to part ways. Because underneath the failures of Spy is evidence that both McCarthy and Feig have the ability to thrive, if only they could get out of each other’s way.

The film opens with an extremely on-the-nose James Bond tip-of-the-hat with agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) tossing a well-populated mansion in search of a nuclear weapon. From a distance, McCarthy’s Susan Cooper provides tech support – altering Fine of incoming henchmen and advising him which rooms to duck into for cover. When Fine uncovers the big bad, he pulls a Vince Vega and accidentally turns the man’s brains to crimson mashed potatoes. For what it’s worth, the sequence is disarmingly cutesy and sinfully hilarious and it reminds one why Law was once considered to play James Bond.

Throughout the film, Feig’s actions sequences are surprisingly strong in their glossy execution but, unlike celebrated contemporary Edgar Wright, Feig doesn’t know really know how to pull off physical comedy on camera. Rather, his shots supposedly attain comedic effect because McCarthy’s too big to be pulling off the stunt or she pukes after she does them. While Wright uses clever visual cues, camera movements and framing to deliver a rare form of in-camera comedy, Feig’s films just throw in the kitchen sink, crams his camera in the space and lets it roll without a taste for subtlety or a mastery of his craft.

You likely wouldn’t believe me if I told you but the comic king of Spy comes in the shape of Jason Statham – an agent who talks a big game but lacks almost entirely in follow through. His lofty opinion of himself has him showering us with a list of prior accomplishments – “I was dead for five minutes one time,” “I once had my arm ripped completely off…and reattached it with my other arm,” etc. – and, surprising though it may be, he pulls off the deadpan bit with hearty aplomb.

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Miranda Hart, Allison Janney and Bobby Cannavale all bounce in and out of the picture at one point of another, providing very little in terms of actual comedy while Rose Byrne as an ice-cold vixen with an atom-bomb up for sale actually packs in a few nice laughs. A brief interlude with Zach Woods make me grin and showed that Feig was maybe even willing to challenge his status quo with a little gore but it’s a promise that stands unfulfilled. Over and over again, Feig returns to McCarthy and how she looks like a lonely cat lady, or a mini-van driving mom, or a coupon-clipper and ha, ha, look she’s trying to do something not totally lame! Let’s point the camera and laugh at her. Were I McCarthy, the oft mocking material would slice a chink in the ol’ self esteem armor and, personally, it’s hard to watch her knocked down again and again even if we know redemption is surely in the cards.

In large part due to smarmy secondary characters the likes of Law, Statham and Bryne, Spy does slip in some low laughs, sometimes even at the hands of McCarthy. And though I get the sense that this is supposed to be empowering – as if McCarthy score one for the girls when she doesn’t inevitably f*ck everything up – but, if we’re being honest, I don’t know if I buy it. As Melissa McCarthy and Miranda Hart celebrate their victory with a “girl’s night out”, the intention to pander towards female audiences is grossly obvious in what is essentially a reheated formula of the Feig/McCarthy machine that we’ve seen before. Having digested Spy, I feel as if I can forecast exactly what is in store for the all-female Ghostbusters; fat jokes, slightly funny improv comedy and female failures turned female success stories. And maybe a kitten sweatshirts or two for good measure.

C-

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