'Spy' Is Wonderful, But Melissa McCarthy Still Deserves More

06/05/2015 08:42 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015
20th Century Fox

Early in "Spy," we see Melissa McCarthy's character, Susan Cooper, feeding instructions to Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a CIA agent who wears a tiny earpiece during missions. She tracks Fine's movements on a computer screen and instructs him to turn around or fire or dart to the right. In between perilous commands, he drops in pleasantries that could be vaguely interpreted as compliments, and Susan latches on to each one, swooning to herself and briefly losing track of the task at hand. This amusing repartee shows these two have attained a certain comfort level, but, moreover, it invokes an undercurrent of pity, forcing the audience to register that this hunky, physically deft fella is clearly not in Susan's league.

There could be any number of reasons why Fine doesn't lust after Susan, but "Spy" makes it seem like he wouldn't even entertain the thought. Case in point: While dining together at a restaurant that is more sophisticated than Susan's typical fare, Fine presents a black jewelry box that appears to contain a pricey pendant. Hoping for a diamond-encrusted something or other, Susan opens it to find a cheap cupcake necklace. “It’s so you," he tells her. Pity ensues like a siren, informing the audience that this movie traffics in fat jokes. Most are implicit, but none are undetectable.

Overall, "Spy" -- McCarthy's third collaboration with Paul Feig, following "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat" -- is actually quite good. It celebrates female friendship, parodies the genre cleverly and boasts hilarious work from McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Jason Statham, Allison Janney and others. Feig's keen eye for directing physical comedy shines. The crux is charming, too: Susan, an often-unnoticed but well-trained CIA desk analyst, volunteers to go undercover because she's one of the few on hand who wouldn't be suspected of looking like a spy. The problem is that each time a character indirectly points out Susan's weight, the audience feels a tinge of sadness for its protagonist. Even though Susan is great at her job, many people treat her appearance as the most notable thing about her.

At this point in McCarthy's career, that seems regressive, in part because it accentuates how much of her previous work drew from the same wellspring of humor. Those unfamiliar with the lovable Sookie St. James on "Gilmore Girls" met McCarthy via her Oscar-nominated turn as Megan in "Bridesmaids." It's one of the decade's funniest performances, and it works because the character upends every fatuous expectation placed on women's bodies. Megan talks the raunchy talk with aplomb, making no bones about her desire to "climb that like a tree." The physical comedy follows suit, and we laugh because the script never asks us to feel sorry for Megan. But some of what was fascinating about McCarthy in "Bridesmaids" has been whittled away in "Spy" and certain other star vehicles that don't do enough to subvert the powerlessness of characters whose weight becomes a punch line.

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In 2013's abhorrent "Identity Thief," McCarthy's character is subjected to an embarrassing, clown-like makeover. Later that same year, "The Heat" seemed to give McCarthy's foulmouthed detective control of her body by combining skillfulness with unkempt hair and unglamorous attire, but the movie's vulgar-tomboy shtick ran thin. And in 2014's "Tammy," McCarthy plays an all-out dunce, a trope that often comes at the expense of her weight. The movie's first teaser, for example, featured only one scene, in which McCarthy's title character attempts to rob a fast-food joint but cannot thrust her body over the counter to get to the registers.

In proving, unsurprisingly, to be an adept "Saturday Night Live" host, McCarthy's riotous line delivery makes it easy to ignore the demoralizing weight gags that underscore certain characters. In one of her best sketches, she portrays Barb Kelner, a clueless aspiring entrepreneur who pitches a business where she is paid to eat people's leftover pizza. In another, McCarthy plays a Vaudeville vixen who invites a trio of men upstairs to her bedroom, then trips and face-plants repeatedly while going up. It's amusing, sure, but the gag is an unfortunate reminder that overweight stars usually are barred from playing sexualized characters -- just like in the opening of "Spy."

The list of sad cracks about Susan's weight in "Spy" goes on. Every alias handed to her throughout the mission is some sort of lonely, cat-obsessed single woman, replete with crappy Photoshopped images that make her look increasingly desperate. Susan starts to protest, but her meek proclivities take over. There's a self-awareness to these jokes, but again, must we treat this as another stop along the way to the plot's realization? The movie is built on an underdog premise, which provides an inherent air of sympathy. Sticking a positive, feminist message on the end barely distracts from two hours of disparagement about Susan's physique.

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The troubling thread here is not that such humor requires McCarthy to accentuate her weight. It's fantastic to see a woman -- or anyone -- own her body that way. The problem with "Spy" and McCarthy's related roles comes in the slight pity they induce. Compare Susan Cooper to Roseanne Conner, for example. Roseanne Barr's title character was the victim of constant jabs about her size, but never once was the audience asked to feel bad for her. In fact, the opposite occurred: "Roseanne" refused to let us think of Roseanne and Dan Conner as anything but strong-willed champions. The same goes for Rebel Wilson's work in "Pitch Perfect," where her character is named Fat Amy so she can strip "twig bitches" of their skinny upper hand. There's a power in Amy's boundless confidence and in the physical humor that reinforces her stamina. Susan Cooper, like Tammy and the aforementioned "SNL" characters, misses that boat, no matter how fun and smart "Spy" otherwise is.

No one doubts McCarthy's prowess or her ability to portray her body any way she desires. But now that "Spy" is opening, it seems like time for McCarthy to graduate from roles that make weight-oriented humor pitiable. She's too remarkable for that.

"Spy" opens nationwide on June 5. You should go see it, despite what this essay says.

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