It is coming slowly though because, in a sense, no one needs to bother. McCarthy movies are certifiable hits on opening day. But anyone who has seen her in supporting roles such as last year’s “St. Vincent” knows how good she can be as an actress.
Yet as a proud professional McCarthy is beginning to demand more from producers, writers and, most of all, herself. While not a complete blueprint for future success, “Spy” points the way to deploying all of her ferocious talents — the good, bad and over the top — as a leading lady.
For one thing — and this might even be the key — in most scenes she works in tandem with a fellow performer instead of going solo. McCarthy has always been better playing off someone else than being asked to get wild and crazy all by herself.
Some movie clowns like Jerry Lewis can go it alone; others need support.
The concept here is a spoof of macho spy movies only with a plus-size female instead of a svelte male as hero. “Spy,” written and directed by McCarthy’s must successful helpmate, Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “Heat”), even displays a terrific opening title credit sequence worthy of James Bond.
McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is set up as an “earpiece girl,” the eyes and ears of an agent in the field as she monitors live feeds from satellite imaging and a body camera. In a rodent-infested sub-basement at CIA headquarters, she’s glued to computer screens and can whisper warnings of impending danger in the earpiece of an agent as he moves through bad-guy infested terrain.
While having fun with the novice’s absurd disguises and first-assignment jitters, the movie cleverly pairs her off in nearly every sequence with a fellow performer. Initially in that Langley basement she is whispering into ear of Jude Law as he James Bonds his way through an underground maze of baddies.
When she jets off to Europe, she has her own earpiece girl in Miranda Hart, a British TV comedy star who is entirely simpatico with McCarthy’s brand of comedy, playing a geeky and overenthusiastic tall female to complement McCarthy’s short and short-fused ball of fire.
Then as the story moves through Paris, Rome and Budapest (with Budapest actually supplying most locations), McCarthy teams up in various segments with a host of talented actors.
There’s Rose Byrne as the dressed-to-kill international woman of intrigue and all-around bad girl; Bobby Cannavale as a Eurotrash criminal; action star Jason Stratham as an egomaniacal though crushingly inept fellow CIA spy; Peter Serafinowicz as her licentious driver; and Allison Janney as her humorless, germ-phobic boss.
McCarthy also gets a robust workout with Bollywood star Nargis Fakhri in a chase scene — “Unfair,” McCarthy mutters as Fakhri vaults over cars she can only crash into — and then in hand-to-hand, Jackie Chan combat in a cramped restaurant kitchen with weapons ranging from a sharp knife and cleaver to baguettes, vegetables and a turkey leg.
The movie of course has it both ways. One minute McCarthy blunders badly yet in the next has suddenly acquired the skills of a martial artist. She constantly pines for male attention, especially from Jude Law, then primly rejects it when always on-the-make Serafinowicz focuses on her.
McCarthy’s various undercover guises allows her to try on various personas from a divorced Mary Kay saleswoman in an appropriately dreadful wig to — a character she clearly feels most comfortable with — a foul-mouthed, black-outfitted bodyguard with a take-no-prisoners attitude.
The film runs overly long and overly extends many sequences. Yet McCarthy is never left to her own devices as her actions and goals remain clear, which has not always been the case in those comedies where she merely coasts.
Feig’s satiric edge is sharp enough most of the time as he hits his target — the James Bond movies of old but certainly not the sleek contemporary ones designed by Sam Mendes — with good-natured jabs. The chauvinism and macho belligerence of the series takes a deserved hammering while McCarthy has fun with espionage conventions from countless other spy movies.
Feig makes sure production values are stellar as interiors are impressive and exteriors generous for the needs of chases, fights and gun battles. Cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman even uses a small GoPro camera to capture images from McCarthy’s point of view.
“Spy” works well and often enough that one can even imagine a sequel. Perhaps with Jude Law as McCarthy’s earpiece?
Opens: June 5, 2015 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Feigco Entertainment, 20th Century Fox
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Peter Serafinowicz, Morena Baccarin, Jude Law, Nargis Fakhri
Director/screenwriter: Paul Feig
Producers: Peter Chernin, Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson, Jenno Topping
Executive producer: John J. Kelly
Director of photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Production designer: Jefferson Sage
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Costume designer: Christine Bieselin Clark
Editors: Brent White, Melissa Bretherton
R rating, 115 minutes