Heads all over the world dropped when it was announced that Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, would helm an unnecessary remake of ‘80’s comedy classic, Ghostbusters. Hollywood’s ability to invest movies with wit, and make comedies that live long in the memory has diminished to the point where any filmmaker who can coax a laugh from a joy-starved audience get the keys to the classics. Consequently all eyes were on Feig’s remake run-in, a Melissa McCarthy helmed spy spoof. Could this action comedy reassure the masses that Feig’s comic sensibilities were calibrated for the task at hand? Or would they confirm the world’s suspicion that one of its favourite films is about to be diminished?
Well there’s good news and bad. The good is that Spy is perfectly enjoyable and sporadically funny. The bad news is that its laughs come from the realm of the bawdy, the raucous and the self-aware. Other movies from this place have been delivered stillborn but Feig’s better than most at mining some fun from proceedings, despite this, like his previous movies, existing in a heightened comic reality where everyone’s on all of the time. Watching a movie like Ghostbusters today, it’s fascinating to note how grounded it feels. The situations are extraordinary, the concept is high, but the movie feels populated by real people and consequently the tone is tongue in cheek, rather than balls out ridiculous – a tone that naturally lends itself to wit rather than conspicuous gagging.
Spy, though it uses genre conventions better than many of its dramatic counterparts, is a joke factory – closer in tone to guff like Horrible Bosses than Spies Like Us. Some of these running gags are great fun. Jason Statham’s hapless, self-regarding and monstrously aggressive agent bounces off McCarthy in every scene they share (and no that’s not a reference to the actress’s weight – we’ll come to that), while Peter Serafinowicz’s sleazy Italian hits the spot each time. But that aside, and despite McCarthy’s likeable lead, there’s none of the dramatic grounding that makes a movie – any movie – a fully satisfying experience.
Feig, perhaps warming up for the main event, has at least taken the trouble to plot Spy, so that it’s built from the same stuff as its so-called serious counterparts. That tells you, ahead of his Ghostbusters, that he has the right idea: he’s not going to foster a series of sketches on us, rather attempt a movie stocked with humans and a story, rather than a setup. But if his remake is going to work, he’s going to have to invest his next movie with more humanity and realism than you get in a film that includes whimsical guff like a bat and rat infestation. Ghostbusters works as both a sci-fi movie and a comedy. Spy doesn’t quite work as a spy thriller if you strip out the jokes, because the focus is on setting up those gags, rather than dropping characters with a comedic bent into those situations and finding the humour in each.
If Spy does score points, it’s for ultimately allowing Melissa McCarthy to be something other than an object of derision. The road is long, as her weight and lack of sex appeal is the focus of the first half, with all the double standards we’d expect (Feig laughs at her, not with her in this part of the film), but she gets there, and when she does we’re able to enjoy her comic personality rather than point at her folds and feel better about ourselves. Feig will say that the women carrying the weight of body confidence issues in the audience will find McCarthy’s shift from object of ridicule to vulnerable but effective kick-ass heroine empowering, but better yet would be a movie in which McCarthy’s dowdiness was neutral from the off. If you, like Paul Feig, read that and thought, ‘but then she wouldn’t be funny’, then a job in Hollywood awaits.